American Idol returns Sunday on ABC, less than two years after it ended its original run on Fox. New judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan and old host Ryan Seacrest are on the same journey to find a musical superstar, but they're bringing Idol back into a very different television and music business landscape.
Idol used to regularly pull over 30 million viewers in its mid-'00s heyday, but with ratings declining across all TV as the number of TV shows and ways to watch them increase, Idol is unlikely to match the numbers it earned in its then-final season in 2016. (ABC is guaranteeing advertisers a reasonable 1.8 rating in the 18-49 demo, according to The Hollywood Reporter; Season 15 averaged around 2.2. The current season of Grey's Anatomy, another popular, long-running ABC show, averages a 2.0 rating.)
So ABC knows American Idol is not going to be the megahit it once was; but the network is still spending money like it's 2005. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Katy Perry is getting paid $25 million and Ryan Seacrest is getting paid a little more than $10 million. This show is expensive. The cost can be worth it if the show generates buzz, but so far that's not happening. The consensus seems to be "fine, whatever."
It's too early to say that the American Idol reboot is in trouble, but it's already clear that the show will have to make some adjustments if it comes back for another season. None of them really have to do with the content of the show itself; the premiere screened for critics is pretty much the same show American Idol has always been, very much in the vein of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The auditions have always been compelling, and seeing some kid with a sad story walk in and blow the judges' socks off and have their Idol dream come true is heartwarming no matter how many times it happens. And it's fascinating to see talented people who don't have that "it" factor juxtaposed with people who do. American Idol perfected its formula a long time ago, so this is just a slightly Disneyfied version of the same old show. Which is fine!
The problems come from other areas. And we have some suggestions on how to fix them for the next go-round.
1. Do less.
American Idol will air 19 episodes over 38 hours for the next 11 weeks. That's too much. There's an overwhelming amount of TV in general, and asking people to commit to watching that much of one show is an unappealing proposition. American Idol should be like The Bachelor: 11 two-hour episodes, and then a three-hour finale on the 12th week. As great as the auditions are, we don't need them on Sunday and Monday. Two hours is plenty. Like The Bachelor, the initial talent pool could be narrowed down to around 30. That would allow for more time with each contestant. We'd get to know them even better. Plus fewer episodes would bring the cost down. Less is obviously more here.
2. More diversity.
Unlike The Bachelor, which has struggled to find nonwhite people to participate, American Idol has always had a balance of racial and gender diversity. But everyone — black, white, male, female — sounds the same. There's a specific polished, virtuosic vocal style that everyone has. Even the country singers sing like Mariah Carey. Maybe the next Neil Young — someone with a unique, soulful style but without the technique American Idol prefers — isn't applying for the show, or maybe American Idol just isn't interested. Either way, American Idol should do a better job of finding that person. The show has plenty of quirky contestants, but no genuinely odd ones. And the show really needs to get with the times and start acknowledging rap. The show that once had Nicki Minaj as a judge still does not include rappers as contestants. This is a mistake. Hip-hop is pop music. Drake has the #1 song on the pop chart. Post Malone has the #2 song. Drake and Post Malone are rappers who sing. There are thousands of Drake-influenced performers in America. Some of them are surely family-friendly enough to be on a Disney channel. There isn't room for one of them on the show that purports to find a superstar? The show is not even attempting to be a relevant source of music discovery if it ignores what young people are actually listening to. Producers should start DMing Soundcloud rappers and asking them to audition.
3. Seacrest out.
Ryan Seacrest's former stylist accused him of sexually abusing her. E!'s internal investigation cleared him, and ABC stands by the results of that investigation, but maybe they shouldn't. The detailed allegations against Seacrest should be enough to make the network think twice about keeping him as the family-friendly face of the franchise. His presence is a distraction. It puts the narrative of the show around Seacrest instead of the show itself. It's probably too late for this season, but before next season he could decide that fitting American Idol into his insane schedule is too difficult, and for that reason he is stepping away. He could even do that before the live shows start.
None of these things will guarantee success (or make it 2005 again), but they'll keep it from being a fiasco.
American Idol premieres Sunday, March 11 on ABC.