No amount of shiny hype, format tweaks or new judges can change the fact that American Idol is entering its 12th season when it premieres on Wednesday at 8/7c on Fox.
As the elder statesman of reality singing competitions, Idol no longer has the sheen of innovation it once had. In fact, with a market so glutted with similar shows, the programs rarely surprise viewers who have become inured to all the variations.
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But is surprise essential for continued success? Or is Idol's tried-and-true formula still relevant to today's viewers and contestants? To watch or not to watch? That is the question TVGuide.com examines as Idol enters the twilight of its tween years:
Watch: With the introduction of superstar Mariah Carey, country star Keith Urban and hip-hop/rap star Nicki Minaj to the judging panel this season, the show increases its cachet (Carey), genre diversity (Urban, Minaj) and kookiness (Carey, Minaj) in one go. "I think what you're seeing now is this panel has reinvigorated the show," said Fox's President of Alternative Entertainment Mike Darnell at the winter TV previews. "It's become a very tough place to get through to Hollywood because this panel is... really discerning. .. and I think that's going to hike it up." Idol also widens its audition pool by sending out buses to smaller towns and through the "I Nominate" process.
Not Watch: The judges' table has seen so much turnover, we can't help but wonder if those who have vacated the post saw the writing on the wall. Much has been made of the so-called feud between Carey and Minaj to the point where it seems the show has shifted its focus from making stars to the stars it already has. As for the auditioners, there are still as many (if not more) bad singers as ever.
Popular Genre Representation
Watch: Idol has had success with the best-selling pop and country genres, the latter of which has become more mainstream with artists like Idol champs Carrie Underwood and Scotty McCreery. Adding Urban to the mix brings a greater understanding of country music. "[Idol] has always had a huge country audience as well," said Urban. "I lived in Nashville for 20 years, and it's always had a big country viewership.
Not Watch: Sorry, rap and hip-hop artists. Idol isn't your ticket to stardom. "I definitely don't think a rapper should be in this competition," said Minaj. "For some reason, the hip-hop community wants you to be credible. They want to know that you really went through a certain thing in your life. This is different. ... If you're really looking for people to believe you and see you as an authentic rapper, you wouldn't do it." Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe added, "I believe rap is an artform in itself more akin to poetry, more akin to drama, if you will. ... Hip-hop is a way of life. It isn't a genre in truth in American Idol."
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Watch: Idol is still the leading reality competition show of its kind. In the Season 11 finale, it drew 21.49 million viewers, far exceeding the numbers of its competitors' most recent season finales: The X Factor (9.65 million), The Voice (12.28 million) and America's Got Talent (10.59 million)
Not Watch: That said, Idol numbers have steadily decreased over the past 11 seasons and is down approximately 25 percent from the Season 10 finale. Gone are the days of 35-plus million viewers. "There are too many of these shows on the air, probably, and they're all taking each other down a little bit," observed Darnell. "Literally every one of the shows, including The Voice, went down about 18 to 20 percent."
Watch: Idol is still the only show of its kind that has created successful, recognizable stars. Kelly Clarkson and Underwood have become household names, and altogether the previous 11 winners have sold over 200 million records. Last year's champ Phillip Phillips went triple platinum with his coronation song "Home." "He's one of the few artists that sold that many records last year; probably only him and Adele that did that well," said Lythgoe. Non-winners such as Jennifer Hudson and Katharine McPhee have also parlayed their Idol experience into acting gigs on Dreamgirls and Smash, respectively.
Not Watch: Is the American dream that Idol is selling only available to a certain type of singer? Young female voters have been blamed for the past five seasons of white, male winners. Viewers have despaired of this perceived stranglehold on the results, which creates a disturbing homogeneity for a show that is supposed to represent the country. "We've had a real spate of what's been called 'white boy with guitar,'" Lythgoe admitted. "But I think we all agree and the judges will say, that the girls are pretty strong this year. It isn't always about the voice; it is about charisma, it is about personality, it is about attracting an audience and doing that week on week."
So, what will it be? Will you tune into American Idol this season or put it out to pasture?
American Idol airs its two-part premiere Wednesday and Thursday at 8/7c on Fox.