Here’s the column I wrote for the print edition set for Monday:
“American Idol” has aired more than 300 hours of entertainment since 2002, some of it truly enthralling and memorable. But season nine last year felt like arthritis was setting in as dull contestants and a dysfunctional judges’ panel left viewers feeling enervated and ready to ditch the show forever.
Fox knew it needed to give the show, still No. 1 in the ratings, an adrenaline boost this year. Surprisingly, “Idol” has found its mojo again.
Here are reasons why so far:
- The return of Nigel Lythgoe: though the public knows him best as the judge on “So You Think You Can Dance,” he’s a crucial reason why the first seven seasons of “Idol” worked. In his absence the past two years, the show began to list. With his steady hand and eye for drama, he has righted the ship.
- No Ellen DeGeneres: Congenial DeGeneres is a natural born talk show host. But her lack of musical expertise and discomfort critiquing contestants made her a terrible “Idol” judge.
-Simon Cowell’s departure: A key to the success of “Idol” in its early years, Cowell became disenchanted near the end of his run, and he did not hide his boredom. He chafed being a hired hand, albeit a well compensated one. He will have full control this fall when he brings”The X Factor” to Fox stateside.
- Steven Tyler: A wild-card pick by producers as a new judge, the Aerosmith lead singer has proven to be a delightfully quirky presence. He has embraced the challenge, throwing out hilarious, out-of-the-blue bon mots with abandon.
- Jennifer Lopez: While Lopez struggled at first to even say no to bad singers, she has since evolved into the heart of the trio, kind but not saccharine, smart but not dippy. During an episode Feb. 23, she added a human dimension to her carefully coiffed persona when she cried after cutting Chris Medina, whose fiance suffered a nasty head injury after a car accident.
- The talent: this is one of the strongest top 24 pools in recent history. Last year was hampered by pale imitations of past contestants and too many singer-songwriters hiding behind guitars. This year, the ”nicer” judges sent a whopping 327 contestants to Hollywood, double the normal number. They then put them through five rounds of singing instead of three.Potential stars to watch include vocally dextrous 19-year-old Casey Abrams (who killed “Georgia On My Mind” in Hollywood), raise-the-roof R&B/gospel phenom Jacob Lusk and smooth-singing Long Island teen Robbie Rosen.
“Idol” ratings are still down about 7 percent year over year, and it’s unclear how the new judges will handle critiquing contestants live.
But the talent alone this year should help keep “Idol” on top.
RATINGS UPDATE: “Idol” from here on in will have much easier year-over-year comparisons because show ratings last year began to droop off noticeably, mostly in the 18 to 22 million range. And that’s where “Idol” is now. In fact, a year ago, the comparable show only drew 18.6 million so last night’s 21.2 million (14% better) looks great in comparison. That’s down 3 million from two years ago, though. I’m unclear if even a great top 13 will get the numbers much higher than 21-22 million a week but you never know.