‘American Idol’ To Refocus On Talent: 5 Possible Outcomes

'American Idol' Season 9 champ Lee DeWyze (Fox)

'American Idol' Season 9 champ Lee DeWyze (Fox)

The 10th season of Fox’s ‘American Idol’ has had, to say the least, a lot of speculation surrounding it, due to yet-to-be-specified chair-shuffling at the judges’ table, behind-the-scenes changes, and a slightly dimmed profile for the show.

But one thing has remained constant through all the tumult: the competition’s purpose, which is to find a singer who has enough charisma and charm to get audience members calling and texting (and, later, buying concert tickets and albums). That may be why Michael Ferrel, the CEO of ‘Idol’ owner CKX, said on a conference call Monday that this forthcoming season would “refocus… on the talent.”

What does this “refocusing” presage, though? A few scenarios from a viewer who has spent much of the last two seasons hoping that ‘Idol’ would save itself from becoming a singing competition that’s actually about its judges:

Ditching the celebrity-judge idea. Focusing on the contestants would seem to contradict the idea that the people behind the judges’ table also need to be worthy of the audience’s focus. Indeed, bringing in Ellen DeGeneres during Season 9 didn’t  help the show’s ratings very much – in fact, during the call Ferrel noted that the show’s overall numbers declined sharply as the season neared its end. True, this season’s finalist pool was fairly lackluster, but who’s to say that a singer wouldn’t have shone if less screen time had been given over to the bickering of Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell, or the brassy “I can do this too, honey” proclamations of Kara DioGuardi? Putting on the panel people who know the music business – and can be honest with the contestants without being self-aggrandizing – will help everyone, particularly the young’uns singing for their lives week after week.

Slimming down the pool of finalists. Returning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe also helms ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ which this season had only 11 finalists. Thinning the herd before the show gets to the big stage even more than in previous years could allow viewers at home to get to know the contestants better, and establish closer relationships with them. Of course, this could backfire if the finalists wind up being as low on the charisma scale as this year’s group tended to be.

Playing up the “teen dream” factor. ‘Idol’ has lowered its age limit to 15 this year, no doubt hoping to catch some of the Bieber Fever that’s swept much of the teen-girl nation. Could this “focus on the contestants” also mean a refocusing of the median age of the show’s finalists? Lee DeWyze was 24 when he was crowned the winner, Kris Allen 23. Training the show’s eye a bit younger is definitely a risk, given the fickle nature of young audiences – a youthful winner could be the top teen idol when the show ends in May, but totally over by the time his (or her) album drops in the pre-holiday rush.

Allowing the contestants to perform original material. This is probably unlikely, because if there’s one thing TV isn’t these days, it’s daring. But given the troubadour bent of so many recent ‘Idol’ contestants, allowing hopefuls to bring their own material to the stage would introduce an interesting wrinkle to a show that’s for too long been saddled with song rot.

Limiting the voting. OK, this doesn’t exactly fall into the “focusing on the contestants” mantra. But it’s hard to not think that the show wouldn’t be energized by voting limits being put in place, a la ABC’s ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ Right now, people who vote thousands of times for their favorite contestants can tip the ballot box until it falls right over, and that pushes casual fans away from caring about the show. Those casual fans are at least part of what made the difference in ratings as the season wears on – particularly this latest cycle, when the female contestants seemed to get the short shrift week-in and week-out from the voting audience. After all, what’s the fun in watching a competition if you know who’s going to be eliminated, no matter how well they perform?

Idol’ faithful, what do you think of CKX’s declaration of intent to “refocus on the talent”? What do those words mean to you?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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