American Idol, back from the dead and already fighting The Voice with megastar Katy Perry, may end up being the reboot we didn't know we needed rather than what it is now: the reboot fans aren't sure they want. Though Idol's (faux) final season ratings (averaging a 2.2 rating among adults 18-49 and about 9.3 million viewers in overnight ratings) were still strong enough to put many a producers' kid through private school, the end of the show paled in comparison to Idol's golden years: the series was No. 1 for seven straight seasons, and regularly outperformed the Oscars.
But times changed, as did the music business and stardom itself, leaving Idol racing for relevance in a genre it helped start. ABC's big cheese Channing Dungey will surely summon every bit of Disney magic to make sure Idol 2.0 succeeds out of the gate, but it's gonna need more than star power to be great again. How might it reach its old heights? Here are six ways.
1. Tone it down!
It sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out: Idol ended the first time because it got too expensive for Fox, and Dungey has correctly noted that Idol is about "heartfelt, uplifting stories of people who make their dreams come true." All that is a case for scaling this behemoth back so viewers can form an emotional connection with the performers — which is not easy to do when the show is so overproduced viewers feel like they're watching from nosebleed seats, rather than their living rooms. That also means...
2. Slow the shilling.
At its height, American Idol became a victim of its own success: it made viewers feel like they were watching products pass by on a conveyor belt, rather than a talent show. Season 10 featured a record-breaking 208 appearances by brands including Coca-Cola, Ford and AT&T... In March 2011 alone. If Idol wants to connect with living, breathing people it needs to chill on the hucksterism. Your product is the singers, not the cola they're drinking.
3. Lose the camp factor, and thin the herd.
Some of Idol's appeal, early on anyway, came from watching the so-bad-they're-good contestants (William Hung, anyone?) who were adorably unaware of how awful they sounded. But the joke got old. And just thinking about seeing those biblically-proportioned crowds stuffed into a convention center again gives this fan the shudders. That approach will also confuse more modern viewers who know uploading dope covers to YouTube would be a much more efficient path to fame. Idol should vet its new crop so that when we meet them, we're placing bets straight away — not rolling our eyes at some guy in a Pikachu costume who has zero chance of winning.
4. Integrate digital, social and new tech... But you know: better.
Duh. An immersive virtual reality experience (which the U.S. and U.K. version of The Voice have been toying with to some degree) might be a little too forward for Idol's mainstream audience, but Idol absolutely needs some wicked cool digi-techy-social stuff to complement and enhance what's on the screen. Stars are made online — and that goes for the show too.
5. Set up the winners for real-world, 21st-century success.
Quick: who won American Idol Season 6? What was the name of the debut album from Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery? Exactly. Complaints from winners about a lack of support and/or follow through after the confetti falls are way more common than they should be. Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, for example, was still in a messy legal dispute with Idol producer 19 Entertainment as of 2016, calling the show's contracts "manipulative" and "oppressive."
That case notwithstanding, Idol 2.0 needs to ensure that the next winners get propped up to really be the next Carrie Underwood — someone who, by the way, is in no way crazy enough to rely solely on album sales for success. Idol needs to create organic, artist-specific packages for winners that reach across TV, film, sports or whatever makes sense for them so that a year later, they're not just Idol winners but bona fide, inescapable stars. I'll regret suggesting that later, but it's true.
6. Embrace the unknown(s).
News flash: The coveted millennial audience doesn't get turned on to hot new acts through the radio — i.e. the mammoth Ryan Seacrest-y machine that decides which artists to float to the top. By the time one of today's authentically cool artists becomes a household name — The Weeknd is a good example — they've already been championed by tastemakers constantly on the search for the new and cool. American Idol is a meat-and-potatoes show to be sure, but throwing in some cutting-edge artists into the mix of A-listers would keep things fresh (Lil Yachty with Gloria Estefan? Why not?) and give it the kind of cred that gets people talking.
Creating some unpredictability around the judging process would help spruce things up, too. At the very least, moving judges from behind that off-putting, severe desk for a more intimate interaction would make for more compelling television. A note for the producers though: spinning chairs are already taken.
ABC's American Idol reboot will hit screens in 2018.