Nothing breeds imitation like someone else’s success. These days, no TV show is being imitated and repackaged more than “American Idol,” the Fox network’s ratings juggernaut, which just completed its 11th season.
The longtime success of “Idol” has inspired similar shows over the past year or two. On Friday and Saturday at the Sprint Center, one of those shows, Fox’s “The X Factor,” holds auditions for spots in its upcoming season, which starts in September.
Among the four judges who will be at the Sprint Center this weekend is Simon Cowell, who started “The X Factor” in Great Britain eight years ago. He is best known in America for his role as judge on “Idol,” where he proved the celebrity judges and their personalities are as important — if not more so — than the talent that is showcased.
Cowell left “American Idol” in 2010. Last fall he rehired ousted “Idol” judge Paula Abdul to re-join him on “The X Factor,” making it the third show of its kind on network TV, each with its own spin on the “Idol” format.
In April 2011, NBC launched “The Voice,” which features celebrity judges Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green and country singer Blake Shelton. They not only judge the contestants, each also coaches and mentors separate groups.
“The Voice” begins its third season in the fall. Not to be left behind, in May ABC launched “Duets,” in which celebrity singers Robin Thicke, Kelly Clarkson, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and John Legend are paired with amateur talent, whom they also coach and then perform with.
Though all four shows have different formats, each is going after a similar audience: the one that had made “Idol” one of the most-watched programs in the United States eight years in a row.
This year, however, the “Idol” popularity took a hit. According to Nielsen, viewership of this year’s finale was the lowest ever (21.5 million), and the season’s average viewership fell below 20 million for the first time since 2003. Consequently, network executives are talking about tweaking the show’s format.
Nigel Lythgoe, the show’s founding producer, reacted to that talk with some disdain.
“The format is a very simple format: Kids audition for us,” he said in an online story on BBC News. “Their talent is what brings people in to watch the show. Do we change the format? Maybe we should do it underwater while basket weaving?”
“Idol” is still a ratings monster, so what isn’t broken may not need fixing. But there’s something to be said for a little reinvigoration, and on these shows it typically starts with the jurors.
“The X Factor” made dramatic changes after Season 1 ratings came in much lower than anticipated. Three of its original judges are gone, including Abdul. They’ve been replaced by Demi Lovato, a singer, songwriter and actress, and TMZ’s favorite lightning rod, Britney Spears.
“What was I thinking?” Cowell asks himself in the early promos for the new season.
We know exactly what he was thinking.
When it comes to reality television, nothing attracts viewership like melodrama and a potential train wreck. Spears has already stirred some controversy after walking out of an audition in Texas recently after a contestant performed one of her songs. Some in the audience said she was upset. She later tweeted that she was merely “taking a little break.”
Scripted or spontaneous? Does it matter?
Lythgoe may think that “talent is what brings people in to watch the show,” but he’d be hard-pressed to support his case.
“Idol” has crowned 11 champions and put 44 contestants into its final fours. And what does it have to show for it? One legitimate superstar in Carrie Underwood. Another legitimate star in Jennifer Hudson. A legitimate R&B star in Fantasia Barrino. A legitimate pop star in Clarkson, plus several performers who have sustained some of their “Idol” fame, such as Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert and Blue Springs native David Cook.
It looks as if Season 10 winner Scott McCreery might find success in Underwood’s world. His debut country album, “Clear as Day,” released in October, has been certified platinum, and he snagged an opening spot on this year’s Keith Urban tour.
And Katharine McPhee, first runner-up in Season 5, has resurrected her flagging post-“Idol” career. She is now a cast member in the TV music drama “Smash,” NBC’s adult version of “Glee.”
But the list of winners and runners-up is loaded with names of singers who struck out or flamed out in the music world after “Idol”: Clay Aiken, Taylor Hicks, Justin Guarini, Diana DeGarmo, Bo Dice, Jordin Sparks, Blake Lewis, David Archuleta, Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze, the Season 9 winner whose debut album sold a paltry 40,000 copies.
Even when it crowned champions like Underwood, what really drove “Idol” during its most popular years was the conflict and camaraderie among the judges, particularly Abdul and Cowell. Her critiques were unpredictable, sometimes incoherent. His were often unvarnished and brutally honest — and often exactly what lots of viewers were thinking. Cowell’s often snarky rapport with host Ryan Seacrest was also integral.
Now Cowell and Abdul are gone, and though the show still pulls a big audience, some of its long-time fans have abandoned its ship. A static format and judges like Steven Tyler aren’t enough to make them stay.
“Since Simon left, I do not watch ‘Idol,’ ” said Maria Villa of Kansas City, Kan., who had watched the show since its inception. “Judges are now too nice, and they don’t give constructive criticism.”
She has since converted to the show’s competitors for reasons that have little to do with the talent and the music.
“I love ‘The Voice,’ ” she said. “I love each of the judges. Their chemistry is outstanding. I love hearing them ‘fighting’ over contestants they want. … When they start the mentoring process, it’s so sweet to see how much they care for the contestants on their team and give them the advice they need.”
She is also an “X Factor” fan, but for one reason: “I watch because of Simon,” she said. “He is the best judge in reality music shows. … I love (judge) L.A. Reid, too. But the show needs some tweaking. I probably wouldn’t watch the next season if it wasn’t for Simon.”
The jury is out on whether winning contestants on “The X Factor” or “The Voice” will sustain a following outside the show and be rewarded with successful music careers. The early numbers are scant but not promising.
“Idol” is already taking some fire for this season’s winner. Phillip Phillips, 21, a scruffy, middle-of-the-road indie-folk/rock sort, became the fifth-straight so-called WGWG — white guy with guitar — to win the title, going back to Cook. Phillips’ runners-up were widely considered much better singers: Jessica Sanchez, 16, and Joshua Ledet, 20. A woman has not won “Idol” since Sparks in 2007, which is especially curious considering its most successful alums are all women.
Before this year’s finale, Michael Slezak of TVLine.com told The Associated Press that “Idol” “doesn’t need another winner who sells 40,000 copies and gets dropped by their label. What’s the point in watching if that’s the end result?”
Its competitors seem to think that “the point” is the process of finding a winner, the drama and emotions evoked by the mixing of contestants with celebrity judges and professional singers. The music, it seems, has become secondary.
Lythgoe also cites the swift rise in competition as one reason for the drop in “Idol” ratings, not the show’s format or the generic music or the artistic redundancy.
“It’s never been like this before,” he said in The New York Times.
There are about to be more spin-offs, and the latest competitor, apparently, isn’t going to bother rewarding its talent with a recording career. It’s offering hard cash.
On May 29, NBC announced the birth of “The Winner.” According to Variety, “The Winner” will be “a game show in which singers of all ages compete for a $1 million prize but, in a twist that recalls another NBC franchise, ‘Deal or No Deal,’ can negotiate with opponents over whether to get out of the contest with smaller sums.”
On paper, it’s a premise that doesn’t sound like much to sing home about.