Can ‘American Idol’ Be No. 1 Again?

American Idol judges Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson with host Ryan Seacrest (FOX)

As “American Idol” auditions wrapped up last Thursday in St. Louis, more people were watching CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” For the third-straight week, in fact, the sitcom beat “Idol” in the coveted 18 to 49 demo, squashing the show that had long been indestructible, ratings-wise.

Despite reigning still as the most watched show on television, with an average of 20 million viewers over time, Season 11 has been “Idol”s lowest draw in history, with a 20 percent drop from Season 10. And the crowded singing competition market has a lot to do with it.

Speaking via conference call last week, Randy Jackson said that shows like “Idol” are “on year-round now,” acknowledging the ratings drop. “You’ve got a lot of singing, so that’s what happens when your marketplace gets full.”

And the newbies to the stage aren’t any better off. “The X Factor,” which Simon Cowell notoriously predicted would average 20 million viewers, ended the season averaging a little more than half that. But with massive restructuring expected for next season, including the firing of judges Paula Abdul and Nicole Sherzinger and host Steve Jones, the best bet for “X Factor” would be to break away from the “Idol” mold it so closely seemed to emulate in its debut year.

The Voice,” which premiered Sunday after the Super Bowl (expect a ratings bonanza), did better in its first season, drawing an average of 13.7 viewers. And the show departed the most from the now 11-year-old format of “Idol”—blind auditions, battle rounds, a more diverse contestant base, and mentorship by an opinionated panel of judges that had chemistry to match the original “Idol” panel—something “X Factor” sorely lacked and “Idol” has struggled to bring back in recent years.

Now that Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez are in their second year judging on “Idol,” they seem to be finding their footing and are showing their personalities more. But the new makeup still doesn’t come close to that first lineup, which provided contestants empathy from someone who’d been in the business for years, warm-hearted appreciated, and shrewd, curmudgeonly advice.

As loopy as Steven is, and as pretty as JLo is, the judging this year is soft, recognizing heart and backstory more than actual talent. The “everyone is a winner” mentality is, frankly, boring, and provides no tension among the judges themselves—the stuff that makes them fun to watch.

Even Randy admitted that the original “Idol” panel had, well, the x factor. “‘Idol’ started with me, Simon, Ryan [Seacrest] and Paula, and that’s what really brought us to our prominence,” said Jackson. “We did something very unique and we had a chemistry that we lucked out with. I think when you do these shows with any kind of judging panel, what you’re really looking for is that chemistry.”

So what can “Idol” do to stay on top, and prove it hasn’t aged out of the market? Take cues from its competitors, for one thing. With Simon slashing and burning the “X Factor,” and “The Voice” breaking the format mold, “Idol” needs to consider restructuring the show—not just throwing in the wrench of a judges’ save every now and then, but truly remodeling to meet changing audience interests.

On the other hand, it needs to stay true to the things that originally made the show great—high-wattage guest mentors over an insider music producer, and a fully gelled judges’ panel that is not afraid to criticize. There can only be one “Idol” each year, and there can only be one winner in the ratings. If they keep acting like everyone is a winner, then they won’t be.

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

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