Chelsea Clinton Quits NBC Gig

Revamped 'American Idol': Upgrade or Downgrade?

Shannon Peace Shannon Peace
January 15th, 2009 12:26pm EST
American IdolAfter the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that is "American Idol" concluded its seventh season in May 2008 with 2.7 million fewer viewers than the previous season's finale, creative forces behind the show scrambled to regroup. This summer, Fox executives wasted no time in announcing big changes for the singing competition's upcoming 8th season.

On the minds of fans and critics alike: Would audiences accustomed to the 'AI' formula accept the alterations? Would the changes be enough to stymie the slow bleed of viewers? Who the heck is Kara DioGuardi?!?

Let's examine the much-hyped two night premiere of the 8th season of American Idol and dissect what - so far - we've flipped for and what has been a big 'ol flop.

On the surface, season 8 of "AI" looks - and sounds - very much as it always has. Perhaps this is why as of press time, Tuesday night's show was down 10% in viewership from Season 7's premiere. Granted, many promised changes (including an extra "Hollywood" week) won't be implemented until later in the season. Any immediate differences were subtle (or non-existent), with one big exception.

Back in August, the news that a virtually unknown (at least outside of the industry) songwriter named Kara DioGuardi would join Idol as the fourth judge incited questions about the woman herself and speculation about the future role of 'nice' judge, Paula Abdul.

Abdul and Idol producers insist the new judge is there to lend a new voice, not replace an old one. As for DioGuardi, here are the facts: The newly-engaged 38 year-old New York native is the Vice President of A&R at Warner Bros. and co-owner of a music production company, ArtHouse Entertainment. In her prolific songwriting career, DioGuardi has written songs for some of the biggest names in music, including Enrique Iglesias, Celine Dion, Ashlee Simpson, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera, Pink and several past American Idol winners.

Kara Dioguardi

New American Idol judge, Kara Dioguardi




After this week's premiere, most will doubtless appreciate what they view as DioGuardi's chutzpah, like in Phoenix when she verbally sparred with a mediocre singer clad in a bikini. Of course, one might also point out that DioGuardi's "tips" to bikini-girl proved a convenient opportunity for the songwriter to showcase her own admirable pipes.

Self-promoter or not, the lady's got industry experience, indisputable talent and more moxie than her milquetoast mentor, Abdul. However, thus far DioGuardi's remarks aren't overly insightful; her charisma and dynamic with fellow judges less than noteworthy. The season is young, but first impressions are that DioGuardi is essentially a non-entity; she doesn't detract, nor does she add much.

Idol producers vowed this season not to focus on as many of the train wreck auditions the show has become famous for, even going so far as to cut one week of auditions to focus more on those that make it to Hollywood. While some will inevitably balk at this change - there are those who watch the audition round alone to make sport of delusional hopefuls - the premiere proved this will ultimately be a good choice. Not only are viewers not forced to endure non-singing individuals seeking limelight at any cost, but in both Phoenix and Kansas City, there was a refreshing lack of the kind of condescending mockery Idol has displayed in the past towards contestants with obvious emotional/mental handicaps.

What to make of the changes that will take effect later in the season? As reported, this season will find Idol lengthening Hollywood week; the aim is to enable viewers to better connect with the top 12. In the past, the show focused so heavily on craptastic singers, when a phenom like Kelly Clarkson finally gained notice, we were well into the season.

The semi-final round will now be comprised of 36 as opposed to 24 and judges will have the option to place "wild card" picks into the top 12. Best yet, gone is that antiquated and unfair device of having the top 12 split evenly among males and females. With any luck, we'll never suffer another Sanjaya or Nikki McKibbin (yep, said it).

In an attempt to stay hip, the show has done away with some of the theme weeks (legends of Motown breathe a sigh of relief) and younger mentors will be brought on to work with the Idols. Note to the top 12: You don't have to memorize the Neil Diamond songbook.

Perhaps the best change coming down the pike is that Wednesday results shows will once again be 30 minutes as opposed to a bloated, time-wasting hour of filler. Now fans only have to fast-forward to the 28th minute, not the 58th.

One unfortunate change this season is the absence of "Idol Gives Back," the uber-successful television event/music celebration that benefits multiple charities. Producers pulled the plug on the third installment as a response to the current economic crisis. The hope is that the benefit will return in 2010.

This week's two-night premiere was certainly entertaining (did Ryan really try to high-five a blind guy?) but lacked marked change. Whether you view that as an upgrade or a downgrade depends on how much you loved the "AI" formula to begin with. What is certain is that despite slight ratings challenges, "American Idol" is not in any imminent danger. With an average draw of 28 million viewers, the show is still a force to be reckoned with. Still, the Idol powers-that-be will have to continue to put their heads together to find ways to keep the show fresh, relevant and above all else - consistently entertaining. This first batch of changes is a step in the right direction, but if the premiere is any indication, there's a thin line between familiar and stale.

Time will tell, but who knows? One fine day this 'lil talent show could undergo a miraculous reinvention: We'll keep tuning in just in case.


Will you be in harmony with Idol's changes this season or simply tune out? Tell us in comments!


Story by Shannon Peace

Starpulse contributing writer