Thursday, May 01, 2008

Why are people only noticing 'American Idol's' shenanigans now?

This week’s kerfuffle over Paula Abdul’s mistaken “American Idol” comments strikes me as weird, only because there has been funny business associated with the Fox talent show for years, but until now, nobody minded.

Maybe people are making a fuss now because the television behemoth is in trouble, with its ratings declining by double digits over last season (which also saw a decline from the previous season).

Approved_ai_08paulajazz_0392abrf On Wednesday, Abdul told Ryan Seacrest in a radio interview that she had watched Jason Castro perform in the dress rehearsals for Tuesday’s show. That’s why she got mixed up midway through the Tuesday program and critiqued both of his songs, even though he had only performed one tune when the judges were queried.

She also gave another excuse to US magazine – she said she’d gotten her notes on Castro mixed up with those for David Cook. But let’s face it, another excuse is that she’s Paula Abdul and there has to be some scandal about her behavior every season or the American public feels cheated.

The bigger question is, why are “Idol’s” shenanigans only being noticed or commented on now?

In an 2007 interview, contestant Gina Glocksen told me that the show edited one of her audition performances to make it appear as though she had sung “Black Velvet” for Randy Jackson, Abdul and Simon Cowell. Glocksen hadn’t performed that song for them, she sang it for a producer.

“There’s a lot of editing,” Glocksen said. Other auditioners have said similar things over the years, according to, but nobody cared.

Some other fictions: “Idol” has always insisted that it is searching for the best singer in America, but it often showcases the worst. Are “Idol” producers hoping Juilliard-trained opera singers walk in the door during audition season? Please.

Even those performers who make it to the final 20 or so aren’t playing on a level field: Favored contestants usually get showcase spots near the end of the program. This season, "Idol" tried to gloss over Carly Smithson's major-label past until an uproar forced them to address it.

The show has demonstrated similar arrogance over this week's Paula scandal -- Ryan Seacrest didn't address the allegation that the show may be scripted in Wednesday's program, he merely said "rumors" about Paula aren't true, which is not a real answer to fans' legitimate questions.

As Orlando Sentinel critic Hal Boedeker wrote, "Instead of sharing its process, "American Idol" has carried on as if it has something to hide. It's a rather stupid way to conduct business, isn't it?"

But secrecy and image manipulation is all part of the "Idol" game. Speaking of the performers, they are usually younger than 40 – the show may give lots of airtime to mature “mentors” but how many Top 10 performers have reached the ripe old age of 30?

And those women at the foot of the stage? They are not hardcore “Idol” fanatics, they’re sorority sisters imported from UCLA. Audience members are told when to clap and when to wave their hands.

The judges are not often in their seats during the course of live shows, according to a recent New York Times piece. Performances by guest artists and Q&A bits are pre-taped.

All in all, “‘American Idol’ is as scripted as a ‘reality’ show dare be,” Edward Wyatt wrote in the Times on April 22, well before the Paula scandal.

The surprising thing is that the judges were able to feign interest this long. Certainly the Nielsen numbers indicate that viewers are losing interest. The fact that Abdul’s latest folly is getting any traction in the media and among the public is proof that the bloom is off the rose for this 6-year old franchise.

Though David Archuleta is genuinely talented, David Cook is the only performer worth paying attention to at this point. And the sad fact is, it’d be a nightmare for him if he won “Idol.” The record deal he’d be forced into would result in the blandification of a truly original performer. What does it say about “Idol” that I hope that Cook does not win it?

Fox executives have to be wondering how much longer their hugely successful show will remain the Death Star of television. How long can “Idol” force America to those endless, preposterous audition rounds followed by weeks of inept tributes to the songbooks of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Neil Diamond?

As Time's James Poniewozik wrote, "'Idol's' ratings were already dropping off, but uninteresting finalists, a stale format and overly bloated episodes are a far bigger threat to 'Idol' than yet another Paula embarrassment." I agree.

Fox is reportedly looking into changing the show’s format next season, and perhaps jettisoning the audition weeks and showing them only as flashbacks.

Can “American Idol” script a flashback to happier days, when no one even began to question its dominance? That remains to be seen.