Why American Idol fell flat this year: it focused too much on singing

American Idol 10 has finally ended, and the reaction to the season seems to be a resounding “eh.” However, more people watched this season than last. How is that possible? And how did we go from a strong but familiar start to such a mediocre finale?

The answer is simple: American Idol decided it was about singing–even though it was never been about singing before.

Sometimes people question why I cover the Fox series because it’s just a talent show. But it is not that. The singing has always been secondary to the human drama, from the judges interaction to the contestants’ personalities. For nine seasons , the show has pretended it was an uplifting talent show when it was the opposite: an often mean-spirited competition on which singing took a backseat to drama. That’s what generates conversation and headlines that extends beyond the show. What did we have to talk about this year, after Steven Tyler said “fuck a duck”?

I think that’s reflected in the ratings, even though they actually increased: According to the New York Times, there were 4 percent more viewers this year, as each episode had an average audience of 24.9 million people. But among younger viewers, those ages 18 to 49, the show dropped five percent. That’s less of a drop than before–between seasons eight and nine, it lost 10 percent of its viewers 18 to 49–but even as the audience grew year to year, it got older and/or younger.

While the show announced a lot of changes, it reversed course on most of them. That left pretty much the same show structurally, so there was less to be surprised by.

The new panel of judges brought new life to American Idol. But Steven Tyler, Jennifer Loepz, and Randy Jackson weren’t really into the whole judging thing, and that made their segments less interesting to watch. In the Simon Cowell years, people would fast-forward through the singing just to hear what the judges had to say. Those viewers who did the reverse are probably very content with this season, but those of us who found entertainment in Paula Abdul’s insanity or Simon Cowell’s grouchy take-downs of the contestants had little to look forward to this year, because week after week after week, the panel followed Randy Jackson’s example and said the same things.

In the past, even when American Idol didn’t work, it was successful, because the screw-ups were entertaining. Having four judges and running out of time constantly was frustrating but made the show unpredictable and exciting. The same is true with judges Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres. Love them or not, they brought something to the show that gave us a reason to care.

I think it was smart to not replace Cowell directly on the panel by hiring some acerbic person to be brutally honest, and Jimmy Iovine was clearly supposed to fill the need for actual constructive criticism. But while his feedback and advice may have been good and often harsh, he is not made for television. Guest appearances by Lady Gaga and other mentors offered a nice counterbalance to Iovine, at least in terms of their TV presence, but Iovine is an excellent example of how producers picked musical credibility over entertainment.

This season, the contestants had diverse voices, styles, and looks, but very little stage presence. And those who did, relative to their peers, were voted off, leaving two of the blandest contestants ever–people who sang well and who teenagers could project onto, but who gave us little else.

There wasn’t much to mock or decry, and that’s long been what made American Idol watchable, even (especially!) for those of us who weren’t particularly into the singing. The contestants’ group performances were an unmitigated disaster and thus were the most entertaining part of each results show, just because they were so awful.

The season’s high point was the results show during which the judges saved Casey. Even though that was an obvious, pre-planned conclusion, the entire episode was entertaining and unpredictable, particularly his response. That episode, however, was an exception in a season that only surprised us with its lack of surprises.

American Idol 10: B

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.