Gone not quite 23 months, “American Idol” returns Sunday, March 11, on a new network (ABC), with new judges (Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie) and a whole new mandate to find that elusive and perhaps mythical unicorn — the “superstar.”
Meanwhile, the questions ask themselves, beginning with: How can this possibly succeed?
By the time “Idol” wrapped its historic run on April 7, 2016, most fans had long since drifted off to “The Voice” or the web. A victim of changing technology and changeable audience tastes, “Idol’s” day seemed done.
In fact, not quite. “Idol” closed out with 11 million viewers — decent even by 2016 standards — and producer FremantleMedia began to shop for a new network. Fremantle believed Fox had neglected the franchise, hastening the decline, so now, it’s up to ABC to restore some of that old power and glory.
Rob Mills, ABC’s chief in charge of unscripted programming, conceded in a recent interview that he had concerns about a rebooted “Idol” joining the schedule. “Yes, there definitely were doubts because you don’t want to throw this parade and have nobody come. The big question was, how do we make people care about ‘Idol’ again, and tell the last viewers to remember the feelings that they had about this show and tell them that it’s possible to have those again? Or had this asset been so damaged over time? But we rolled up our sleeves and those doubts went away when we talked to Fremantle.”
And suddenly there’s another looming challenge. Host Ryan Seacrest — as closely identified with “Idol” as Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson — has been drawn into the #MeToo reckoning. Accused by his former stylist of harassing her over a period of years, Seacrest (as well as E!) has denied the claims. But the stain remains: Some stars avoided him on the red carpet before the Oscars and some suspicions remain. Can Seacrest shake those before this “Idol” returns, or will they follow him like the ghost of a scarlet letter? In one sense, ABC and Seacrest are lucky. These early rounds were taped months ago, long before he became embroiled in the controversy. The live rounds are weeks away, and Seacrest as well as ABC — which has declined to comment — can only hope that the recent events of late winter are distant memories by early spring.
Can “Idol” bring back the magic? Can that unicorn (er, superstar) be found? Newsday TV critic Verne Gay and pop music critic Glenn Gamboa have rolled up their sleeves and figured out five ways ABC’s “Idol” could soar — and five ways it could flop. On the eve of a whole new chapter for “Idol,” either outcome is possible.
Let’s start with why “Idol” just might surprise us all and soar again.
REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS If ABC has set lower expectations, then those can almost certainly be met — not necessarily aspiring to become the music competition version of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” but a franchise that can match or marginally improve upon those waning days on Fox. Mills insists that’s doable: “Idol,” he says, “looked like it had been neglected for a while on Fox, and as we’ve seen with any show — from ‘The Bachelor’ to ‘Survivor’ — there will always be ebbs and flows, but if you really take care of them, they can be strong assets. It felt like ‘Idol’ wasn’t getting the attention it needed to thrive, and that’s what we’ll do here.”
HEY, MAYBE ‘IDOL’ CAN FIND A STAR! This is the flip side to the reason above. Sure it seems like a long shot, but what if? “Idol” found Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood all those years ago, and if it could mint someone again, then all bets are off. “Idol” then could become appointment television once more.
STREAMLINING The most nagging problem with “Idol” over the past four or five seasons . . . the most nettlesome one . . . the most inescapable one . . . was bloat. “Idol” became the beast that consumed the Fox prime-time schedule, notably with results shows that had about five minutes of results, and 35 minutes of nonsense. In the early days, “results” editions helped to boost cast familiarity, but at some point — most notably during the 12th season, when Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey spent more time fighting with each other than mentoring talent — these became chores. ABC has eliminated the “results” edition. “Idol” will air Sundays and Mondays until April 23, when voting begins on the Top 10 contestants. After that, “Idol” gets a little more streamlined, airing just one edition per week until May 13. The two-night finale airs May 20 and 21.
THE JUDGES COULD FINALLY BE AN ASSET AGAIN Maybe this crew doesn’t have quite the cultural cache of “The Voice’s,” but maybe it has something even better — a comfortable, easy, congenial vibe that’s in sync with the more comfortable, congenial vibe of ABC’s version. Mills says “snark is out” in part because “meanness can come off as inauthentic.” Merrick’s Robbie Rosen, who made it to the Top 24 on season 10 of “Idol,” supports ABC’s move to largely dispense with the bad/humorous acts because they take “time away from people who have spent their lives trying to get attention for real music.” He also hopes the judges will be more proactive: “It’s one thing to learn from the show’s behind-the-scenes coaches, but to learn about song choice and performance from real, working icons would have made a huge difference.”
THE MUSIC COULD BE MORE REFLECTIVE OF WHAT AMERICANS ARE REALLY LISTENING TO Is the prospect of four hours of good music per week delivered by good singers enough to get people to watch? Well, it should be and could be. Mills says the new “Idol” will not be all country, all the time. “We can’t turn a blind eye to any genre, including hip-hop, certainly. I don’t care what genre the superstar will come from, as long as he or she is a superstar. It can be pop, R&B, country, rock, hip-hop. You don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
And now the challenges:
‘THE VOICE’ JUDGES HAVE MORE CULTURAL CLOUT If the musical competition genre remains in thrall of the judge — as it most assuredly does — then “The Voice” (which returned for a 14th season on Feb. 26) holds the winning hand. By securing Kelly Clarkson, “The Voice” even managed an end run around “Idol,” which has Perry, Richie and Bryan as judges. “The Voice” crew — Clarkson, Adam Levine, Alicia Keys and Blake Shelton — are simply more interesting and more culturally current.
‘IDOL’ MAY SIMPLY BE TOO COUNTRY By hiring DJ Bobby Bones as mentor, “Idol” seems to be drifting more to rural viewers when the real action is R&B and hip-hop, which is now the most popular genre in America. If “Idol” goes too country, it may simply end up alienating all those viewers who could not care less.
COULD THE NEW SEASON BE TOO SHORT? In the old days, “Idol” was endless — a five-month romp that began in January and didn’t wrap until the last flowers of May. This new season is a relativeblink of the eye — over almost before you know it. Could this give “America” — or at least fans — the chance to really get to know the contestants, much less get passionate about them?
COMPETITION! And we’re not talking TV competition (“The Voice”), either. In the early days of “Idol,” the web was still an adolescent, and YouTube still the world’s best place to watch dancing cats. But in 2018, music and music platforms are everywhere, including YouTube and Musical.ly, which are constantly in the hunt for new talent, or at least in the hunt for “views.” Would-be stars merely need an iPhone and an internet connection to post their latest masterpiece. They don’t necessarily need “Idol” or even “The Voice.”
CAN ‘IDOL’ ACTUALLY FIND A ‘SUPERSTAR’? Perry has thrown down the gauntlet by saying, “We are wasting our time if we are not finding another star.” But as former winners Trent Harmon, Nick Fradiani and Caleb Johnson can tell you, winning “Idol” hasn’t necessarily guaranteed pop success in years.