Katy Perry has been signed as a judge on ABC’s new version of American Idol, the network confirmed at its upfront presentation Tuesday afternoon.
I wrote “alas” in the headline not because of Katy Perry, but because this signals that ABC’s Idol is intending to stay on the path forged by The Voice and later-years Fox American Idol. I’d hoped that it would take a different turn—perhaps back toward its roots.
Early in its life, American Idol was judged by two virtually unknown judges, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson, plus a former pop star, Paula Abdul, who was the closest to a household name the show had, but was also exactly a huge star at the moment, and also its least-interesting judge. Simon Cowell—again, a nobody to most viewers—turned out to be the star of the judging panel.
The A-list casting sort-of started in season eight, when the show brought in Ellen DeGeneres, who I liked but who didn’t work out. Then the show went the superstar musician route, signing Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez.
That was 2011, when The Voice debuted with coaches Adam Levine, CeeLo Green, Blake Shelton, and Christina Aguilera—a mix of A-list and less-A-list.
The Voice quickly became a show that is all about its coaches and their interaction with each other, the guest mentors, and, okay, members of their teams. The singers are important only in the way that oil at the bottom of a pan is important to make good popcorn: it’s necessary but it’s not what you are hungry for.
NBC and Mark Burnett Productions smartly recognized that and rotated A-list singers in and out, keeping the show anchored with its buddy comedy duo of Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.
American Idol, on the other hand, was primarily about the contestants. The judges matter, but they shouldn’t take the spotlight, as they increasingly did—and the show got more and more intolerable.
They also took its money.
What crushed Idol was not its ratings—they were strong—but its cost, between Ryan Seacrest (who ABC is trying to get back for this new iteration) and the judges (Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr.). Fox executive Dana Walden was clear with reporters last week, saying “the network was losing an enormous amount of money” with ratings having dropped 70 percent over four years but talent fees increasing.
Why return to that model? Perhaps ABC and the show’s production company, Fremantle, have a strategy to avoid that path. And they still may shape the show in a way that it is not exactly just a copy of its former self.
Also, choosing a big-name star is a rational choice—it generates attention, headlines, and possibly viewer interest in a way that lesser-known judges would not. And having one star leaves room for Katy’s judging partners to not be big-name singers.
But this is an early signal that American Idol 2.0, or Disney’s American Idol, or whatever it will be called, may find safety in the well-worn paths of its predecessor and its competition.