‘American Idol’: Ready Or Not, Here Comes Season 10

Can it be almost a decade since Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman co-hosted the very first episode of “American Idol” on June 2, 2002? As you may recall, it was a summer replacement show, but it was immediately returned to the air that January when it proved an unexpected hit. Who knew Seacrest would become a household name (and multimedia presence) and Dunkleman would pass into obscurity? The show marked the introduction of three judges–an acerbic Englishman named Simon Cowell, a pop singer who’d seen better days in Paula Abdul and a producer/session musician named Randy Jackson, who was not a member of the famed family of the same name, but once played bass for Journey.

This Wednesday and Thursday, “American Idol” will return to Fox for its tenth season, basically retooled with new judges in Steve Tyler and Jennifer Lopez joining Jackson, Nigel Lythgoe returning as executive producer, Interscope music guru Jimmy Iovine as an in-house mentor and Universal Music Group now the record label of record, having secured the franchise from Sony Music Entertainment. Abdul was gone before last season, Cowell split to start his own U.S. version of “The X Factor”, while Ellen DeGeneres ankled and Kara DioGuardi was let go after last year.

As a diehard rock and roller — and not necessarily a fan of reality TV — the charms of “American Idol”’s pop drama managed to elude me at first, but it quickly became apparent that, if I wanted to take part in the town hall discussion, I had to follow the show’s real-life narrative twists and turns. And while it’s debatable whether it has produced any musical artists who will last—arguably the show’s most fascinating creation has been Simon Cowell, while its biggest star to emerge may well be Ryan Seacrest — AI has managed to expose the behind-the-scenes machinery of the music biz, offering civilians at least a glimpse of what it takes to succeed.

I also tip my hat to a show that can produce such idiosyncratic talent as Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Jennifer Hudson, Crystal Bowersox and Taylor Hicks, who, even if they didn’t prove to be superstars, at least went against the grain of your typical well-scrubbed pop music icon.

With several tweaks — including accepting online submissions, limiting the playing of instruments and lowering the age limit to 15 — “American Idol” is still the most-watched show on network television, even as its viewing numbers have declined from a peak of 30.3 million viewers in 2006 to a total around 24 million last year, while the median age of those viewers has gone from 32 years old in 2002’s debut season to 45 last year. It still gets $400k per commercial minute, and makes a fortune in commercial sponsorships and tie-ins, but it is nowhere near the pathway to stardom for its winners.

While Carrie Underwood managed to sell 7 million albums, last year’s winner Lee DeWyze has barely cracked 135k with his debut. In fact, the last three winners— DeWyze, Kris Allen and David Cook — have barely made a dent on the charts.

To that end, “American Idol” is trying to reach out to the record industry to create closer ties this year. Iovine, a record industry veteran with a long record of breaking acts, from Nine Inch Nails and Eminem to Black Eyed Peas and Laldy Gaga, will provide the musical and marketing savvy, while Universal Music Group, the largest in the world, will provide the promotional muscle, offering plenty of tie-ins with its own artists and leading writer/producers like Timbaland, industry A&R vet Ron Fair, Rodney Jerkins and Alex Da Kid to help with song choices and arrangements for the contestants, who will be encouraged to do more original songs rather than covers. The 40 contestants will be cut down to 20 in just two days, while the Hollywood Week will stretch to two.

Of course, the problem with finding the next “American Idol” by popular vote is that winner has to be all things to all people, not exactly what you’d call the optimum way to succeed in a field as trendy and looking for the out of the ordinary as pop music. It’s hard not to get the lowest common denominator as opposed to a star with unique talents. Can American Idol discover the next Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, for instance? It’s sure gonna try. “My job is to help find someone with an original voice, rather than someone who’s singing like someone else, which is not particularly attractive to the record company,” Iovine has said.

And, in newly anointed UMG CEO Lucian Grainge, an old pal of Cowell’s, Idol has someone from the U.K. who has seen first-hand how shows such as “The X Factor” and “Britain’s Got Talent” can create pop superstars. He is ready to put his machinery to work, releasing albums by the finalists much quicker than ever before, and even taking advantage, like “Glee” has, of day-after iTunes sales.

With the reality competition a lot fiercer than it was nine years ago, “American Idol” will avoid “Dancing with the Stars” on Tuesday night, but will run up against Abdul’s new show “Live to Dance” on Wednesday and CBS’ huge hit, “The Big Bang Theory” on Thursdays at 8 p.m.

The big question for AI fans is, how will the new panel of judges play? Will Steve Tyler replace Paula Abdul as the mercurial say-anything weirdo in a world of his own? Or is that the role of Jennifer Lopez? Can Randy actually distinguish himself apart from his cliches? “You’ll see a bit more of an assertive dawg,” he told reporters last week. “A little bit more hair on the dog. Fewer ‘yo’s,’ maybe more ‘no’s,’ less ‘dawgs.’” In other words, can anyone replace the get-to-the-point no-holds-barred, speak-his-mind approach of Cowell? For many, his caustic, no-nonsense cut-to-the-chase critiques are what makes American Idol compelling in the first place.

With no new female finalist since Jordin Sparks in Season Six in 2007, there is some sentiment towards a woman winning this year. Already there is some chatter about a contestant named Jackie Wilson, a Nashville waitress at the same bar where Gretchen Wilson once worked. Randy Jackson is already saying she could be the one to break the male stronghold of the past three years.

So, the five-month-long journey begins this week for the program that is like sports for people who don’t follow sports. Is it karaoke or is it art? Can a pop star be made by a TV show? Is artistry really a function of popularity? American Idol will determine all that and more this year on its path from the pathetic wannabes to superstar hopefuls. Will we see another Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood or Daughtry this year? Or Taylor Hicks? In a record industry rapidly going down the toilet, American Idol remains one of the music business’ last great hopes for not only star-making, but survival.

By shaking things up this year, the producers have threatened to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, but admittedly, the naming of two certifiable pop music superstars in Tyler and J. Lo has made this 10th season—at least for now—a must-see aspect that might just counteract show’s downward spiral over the last few years. “American Idol” may well be the modern equivalent to the depression-era dance marathons in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They”, but at least it takes our mind off the faltering economy, Sarah Palin, health care and the war. And isn’t that what all good entertainment is supposed to do?

Now let the games begin.

What does everyone else think? Will these be changes for the better? Can American Idol retain its cache as a #1-rated show? Or will it continue to dive in the ratings and lose relevance? Can it create some real, long-lasting pop music stars? Or is it doomed to promote the lowest common denominator, here-today-gone-tomorrow talents?

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

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