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Have Idols’ ills been cured?

“American Idol” is back for a 10th attempt at finding the next big voice in popular music. No one can argue that “American Idol” has lost its touch (it was still the most watched show on TV, according to Nielsen), but the ratings dropped more than 9 percent last season, making it the least watched season of “Idol” since 2002. Plus, the top finishers of the last several seasons haven’t fared as well in the real world as performers such as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry. The bosses at FOX and some outlying circumstances led to big changes in the show that might make for some big differences. How much will each change affect the show?

New Judges

Current judge Randy Jackson has pointed out, as have many others, the chemistry wasn’t there. Ellen DeGeneres obviously has a great personality, but her only experience with music I know of is her dancing in the aisles of her talk show (with regards to her rhythm … she still has a great personality).

As a replacement for Paula Abdul, she was meant to be the nice, motherly yin to Simon Cowell’s yang. It didn’t work. Simon Cowell might be an a——, but he’s the biggest star to come from Idol because of it. Cowell’s contract came to an end after last season. His leaving was not a surprise after the uncomfortable banter between the judges of season nine, but Fox found a problem. How could it replace the star player?

The solutions it found were Aerosmith vocalist Steven Tyler and pop star Jennifer Lopez. The pro is that both are seasoned performers. The con is that neither is particularly funny, based on the initial interviews I’ve seen. Lopez wants you to take her seriously, and Tyler is a little over the top with his “rock star” demeanor.

The new appointees will definitely solve the chemistry issue. Just about anyone who isn’t exceedingly cynical or nauseatingly nice would have solved the problem. The problem is, solving the problem might be a problem. If there is no Cowell, whose acerbic quips are going to keep the contestants in line? It’s easy to tell a William Hung (my favorite contestant ever, by the way) that he sucks, but Cowell excelled at telling very talented people why a performance sucked and getting them to turn it around. I can’t see Jackson strong-arming anyone.

 

New Format

Previously, viewers began with 24 possible finalists and then whittled them down to 12 spots. As of now, the show is beginning with 60 possible finalists. Judges will cut it down to 20 for America to vote on, and the network still hasn’t announced how many will make it to the finals. “Idol” executive producer Ken Warwick told Entertainment Weekly it could be anywhere between 10 and 15 finalists. Having 15 contestants is risky. If they are interesting, “American Idol” wins. But if they are bores, the viewing public will tune out progressively as the season, which is three episodes longer, winds down. As a side note, “Idol” will ditch the notion of gender parity when selecting candidates.

Stricter Format

One thing that will not see the light this season: acoustic guitars. Producers told Entertainment Weekly that contestants used instruments as a “crutch” and the show wanted to highlight vocals. For the purpose of the show, this is an understandable development. If it wants to focus on vocals, so be it. It sends a questionable message, however. People with great voices should just forget instruments? It sets a bad precedent.

Lady Gaga plays the piano at shows. Chris Cornell might be the rhythm guitarist for Soundgarden, but both his voice and guitar are necessary for the group. The show should allow instruments if it is a vital part of the act. If it distracts the contestant, suggest parting with it. But disregarding instrumental talent is a mistake. Steven Tyler should know. Without Joe Perry, he wouldn’t be here.

This season of “Idol” will certainly have more viewers. Two new judges who are still A-list stars will produce a base viewership. The contestants will be the determining factor if viewership drops off at the end of the season. Personable entertainers like Clarkson will keep the viewers hooked. If the finalists are as boring as in years past, not even Cowell will be able to save the show.

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