What do the new judges mean for 'American Idol'?
Will Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Mariah Carey bring more than starpower?
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I've been regularly covering "American Idol" since the very beginning of its second season and, on Sunday morning I woke up to a whole new show.
With nary a warning to West Coast reporters who might have wanted to cover a fairly large -- by network TV standards -- story, FOX officially revealed at 7:18 a.m. Pacific Time that Randy Jackson will be joined on the "American Idol" judging panel next spring by Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Mariah Carey.
When it comes to the most popular show on television, FOX has an erratic track record for secret-keeping. While Steven Tyler's exit this summer was an effectively detonated surprise, Jennifer Lopez scooped the network on her exit with a radio interview, just as Paula Abdul's tweets caught the network flatfooted several years back. This was the judging panel we all knew was coming, whether or not we woke up early on a Sunday to report it or not. Carey had already been formally announced back in July, Minaj and Urban had been rumored for weeks and Randy is Randy, so this was more of a confirmation than a grand announcement.
That means that the only thing to analyze about the "American Idol" judges is what mindset this quartet reflects for FOX and its most important property going into Season 12. To my mind, it becomes a coin-flip between "insecurity" and "desperation."
I get the idea that FOX and "Idol" might be insecure, but I wonder if they've jumped the gun on "desperation" and let the marketplace dictate creative changes that toss out the basic ethos of the show.
The most important thing for everybody to remember is that no matter how many stories you may have read about flagging "American Idol" ratings last spring, there is no show on television -- other than NBC's "Sunday Night Football," which isn't a show -- that wouldn't kill for "American Idol" ratings among Adults 18-49 in three hours per week. That includes "The Voice," which NBC has already successfully transformed from a juggernaut into a waning hit in only three seasons. If "American Idol" returns in January to numbers like what "The Voice" did last week in its return, every pundit in town will be calling it a disaster. That's a perspective one might lose because "The Voice" is shiny and new and "American Idol" is undergoing its second major overhaul in three seasons.
When Simon Cowell left "Idol" to finally bring "The X Factor" to these shores, "Idol" went star-chasing and landed Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler who, for one year, did the only thing "American Idol" wanted from them: They prevented a deluge. Both wore the title of "judge," but neither did a second of judging in two seasons, but since neither was recruited to actually judge, that was fine. J-Lo was there to bring movie star glamor to the panel and she delivered completely. She treated "Idol" as a two-year "Remember me?!?" blind audition and she used it to reinvigorate her own career. Other than "Goosies!!!" she contributed nothing to the dialogue on the show, but she looked fantastic every week and, as substance-free as she was, she never phoned it in. Steven Tyler said incoherent things and leered at teenage girls and some audiences loved him for it. He wasn't brought in to do anything other than ramble and repeat the same banal compliments, so you can't say he underdelivered for "Idol" either. Both artists allowed "Idol" to survive Cowell's departure, even if they couldn't stop the Season 11 drop.
So "Idol" did the star-chasing thing before "The Voice" came along and it would be wrong to accuse FOX and the show of being bullied into this new panel by Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine and CeeLo Green.
"Idol" did, however, announce a star-studded judging panel less than a week after FOX learned the hard way that audiences aren't inherently interested in seeing even the biggest pop stars judging on reality TV shows, even if they're doing it well. Despite months of aggressive promotion, "The X Factor" dropped in its second season premiere, as Simon Cowell and FOX apparently overestimated view curiosity in Britney Spears and Demi Lovato. Signs actually point to "The X Factor" being a better show in its second season with Spears providing an upgrade over Paula Abdul in the Loopy Judge department and Lovato providing a massive upgrade over Nicole Scherzinger. Maybe that improvement in quality will allow "X Factor" to hold audiences in the long run? But it didn't get new viewers in the door.
What will the new "American Idol" judges provide? Are they there because they're frank and intelligent and promise to bring more steak to replace the sizzle lost in Lopez and Tyler? Or are they there because they're big names? FOX would tell you both, because that's FOX's job, but we clearly won't know until January.
It is, however, a change of course from what has always previously been the "Idol" ethos.
"Idol" premiered with a judging panel of two Nobodies and one Has-Been. Simon became a star. Paula became... something. And Randy became Randy. Everybody involved has always insisted either that the show is the star or the contestants are the stars, but with this judging panel, FOX and "Idol" are giving up and saying, "The judges are the stars." The four-judge format has always been cumbersome for "Idol," either when the show used to have guest judges or in the Ellen DeGeneres year. It takes time away from getting to know contestants, even if host Ryan Seacrest is the best in the business at keeping the show running on-time. [And yes, I know that "Idol" overruns are a tradition, but those are overruns FOX has welcomed, even if they screw with your DVR.]
And "contestants" and developing stars remains the advantage "Idol" still has over the competition. Scotty McCreery went platinum in an industry that doesn't see new artists go platinum anymore. Phillip Phillips had a hit so big NBC gave it exposure during the Olympics. "The Voice" has been good for the careers of its four judges, not for the people they've judged and mentored. "X Factor" gave Melanie Amaro $5 million and we'll see if they get more than a Pepsi commercial out of it.
"Idol" produces stars, even if they're only white guys with guitars these days. It produces stars because the singers are the focus and even J-Lo and Tyler were only there to tell them how beautiful and brilliant they were.
Now we've got a glutted panel packed with successful recording artists and there's no way to know how it will play, other than that it won't play like "Idol."
There's just very little precedent on American reality shows of contemporary recording artists being willing to give real criticism. The mentors on "The Voice" aren't called judges because even when the show becomes competition, they critique the other judges more than the contestants. Similarly, on "X Factor," the judges sometimes insult contestants, but they do it only as a way to heat up the judging rivalries.
We'll also have to see what Keith Urban brings to the table other than credibility in a genre that has always been "Idol"-friendly. I completely get Urban's presence. Yes, teenage girls are responsible for the string of similar winners, but the show's ongoing strength in country-friendly markets plays a role as well. Having somebody like Urban on the dais to give his blessing is smart. He's there for what he represents and for the possibility Nicole Kidman might sit in the audience occasionally. If he's substantive, it's a bonus.
[I keep wanting to call Keith Urban "Karl Urban." Karl Urban, of course, will be playing Judge Dredd in the upcoming film. Judge Dredd is, of course, *exactly* what "American Idol" actually needs, a dispassionate authority figure willing to mete out justice without fear of repercussions. "How dare you mangle that Celine Dion ballad? Do it again and I'll shoot you. I AM THE LAW."]
Nicki Minaj is compulsively honest about herself in interviews. Will that translate into honest judging on "Idol"? We'll see. She's there because she's a star. Does anybody think of Nicki Minaj as a singer, though? Or somebody qualified to judge singers? I don't know. FOX hopes that she'll seem qualified and that she'll be honest, but even if she isn't, she's there because young folks like Nicki Minaj and the "Idol" audience is aging up.
And Mariah Carey's there to do what Britney does on "X Factor." She'll be there to generate TMZ headlines and be variably coherent. If Mariah Carey is substantive, it may be detrimental.
You can expect all three of the A-list judges to perform on the "Idol" stage a couple times, perhaps even together, because that's the expectation of reality judges these days.
That leaves Randy Jackson for continuity, because otherwise you wouldn't know you were watching "American Idol" at all, other than Seacrest. Unfortunately, Randy Jackson doesn't even contribute Randy Jackson-isms anymore. Lazy writers and fans still make jokes about Randy saying "dawg," which he trimmed from his regular vocabulary last year. He barely says "pitchy" anymore. He almost never says "Yo." He even stopped saying that contestants were "in it to win it" this past season. The only thing Randy says consistently anymore is, "You know what I loved about that, Ryan?" And that's not distinctive either. I get that Randy didn't like being reduced to the sum of his catch phrases, but without those catch phrases, he's a non-entity, just a jovial guy propped up in the corner.
What "American Idol" needs and hasn't had since Simon left is a JUDGE. See, these folks aren't actually there to mentor the "Idol" contestants. That'd be a different show. They don't hang out with them all week teaching them. And how could they? Those "Idol" singers have to spend time shooting Ford commercials. But on show night, the judges are supposed to let the kids know if they're good or not. Randy never could do that and J-Lo and Tyler never tried.
It's a safe assumption that the "Idol" producers begged Jimmy Iovine to take a regular place as judge and he declined, probably for several reasons. He probably didn't want the regular Wednesday/Thursday time commitment, but more importantly, he likes being right. Jimmy watches the show back on TV and gets to record his impressions well after-the-fact. In the "Idol" studio, it's easy to get distracted by the raucous crowd or just to lose a sense of vocals in the room. You don't have to deal with the audience booing you if you dare to speak the truth. Watching on TV, you don't have those problem and you can make correct assessments every week. So yes, Jimmy Iovine was the lone voice of reason on "Idol" last season, but he had advantages the judges didn't have. Why would he sacrifice being right for being front-and-center?
And why would Nigel Lythgoe, already overtaxed with production duties, commit to sitting on the stage just to give "Idol" a Mr. Nasty? Just because it would make his show better? That's not the top priority anymore.
And why would "American Idol" attempt to find the next Simon? Or even the next Randy? In the current reality TV environment, you can't pluck a no-name from the ranks of producers or A&R executives and assure viewers that the person they don't know is going to actually be entertaining. Even somebody as huge in his industry as L.A. Reid is a risk and the most logical and formerly rumored candidate on that level, Tommy Mottola, probably ceased to be a possibility when Mariah was hired.
FOX and "Idol" don't have the confidence to keep "Idol" as the show it once was, despite its continued relative vitality. But have they changed it into "X Factor" or "The Voice" at exactly the moment viewer relative disinterest in "The X Factor" is evident and relative fatigue in "The Voice" is setting in?
[I say "relative." If "X Factor" doesn't fall off a cliff when it when actual competition returns in two weeks, it's still a success for FOX. And even if "The Voice" continues to dip as NBC squeezes the life out of it, it's still many, many, many times better for NBC than anything else the moribund network could possibly program.]
Given the opportunity to reconceive "Idol," the producers have gone flashy. I just can't help but feel that this Season 12 "American Idol" judging panel is like the 2012 Boston Red Sox. It's a high-priced team of stars tossed together to compete with other high priced teams of stars without any real consideration of chemistry or longevity. Sometimes teams of hastily assembled stars can win you the World Series. Sometimes they blow up in the clubhouse.
Check back in January. We'll see how things turn out.
What do you think of the new "Idol" judging team?
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