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GUEST BLOG #8: Ed Martin Votes No On "American Idol" Format Changes
April 17, 2009  | By Ed Martin

Guest columnist Ed Martin, in his latest excellent missive for TV Worth Watching, vents his frustration about this season's format changes to Fox's American Idol. The fact that I agree with his completely only makes it that much more fun to present.

"Idol" Hands Are Ruining What Ain't Broke

By Ed Martin

Are the inmates running the asamerican-idol-matt-facing-o.jpgylum over at American Idol -- a show that is far too important to millions of viewers, not to mention the business of television, to mess around with? It seems that with each passing week this show gives its loyal viewers something new to complain about.

If I didn't know better, I would swear that Idol is suddenly being produced by people who have not been involved with it in any way during its first seven seasons. Topping the growing list of bad Idol moves this season is the Judges Save, which has proven to be the second-worst format tweak in the show's history (the first being those time-wasting viewer call-ins during Season 7).


The decision to make the contestants who receive the lowest number of votes each week sing once again in the hope that the judges might use a one-time-only opportunity to reverse the audience's decision, and then stand there and be told all over again that they still aren't good enough to continue, undercut the impact of the weekly painful eliminations that add so much drama to the show. The contestants were made to look awkward, and the judges made to look cruel, while the home audience was made to suffer a second time through the performances it enjoyed the least. It's been an epic failure all around.

This week we finally saw the Judges Save in action, as Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Kara DioGuardi seemingly ganged up on sensible Simon Cowell and forced him to save the talented but inconsistent Matt Giraud from the elimination viewers called for after his lame rendition of Bryan Adams' "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman" the night before. Surely some percentage of the people who contributed to the 36 million votes cast on Tuesday night wondered why they had bothered making those calls as they watched the week's least popular performer receive a reprieve.

Paula, Kara, the studio audience and Matt's fellow contestants almost blew the studio roof off with their near-nuclear euphoria over Matt's good fortune, so much so that the ominous follow-up reminder from Simon about the bitter backwash to come seemed to make little impact. (In fact, Paula charged the stage to congratulate Matt right after Simon spoke.)


"Guys, girls, I wouldn't be so quick to congratulate him," Simon cautioned. "No. 1, two people are going home next week now," he added, reminding them all that the rules of the Save call for a double whammy the week after it is used.

Then he really let them have it. "Second piece of bad news: Next week is Disco Week." Disco Week is never a good one for Idol contestants.

I like Matt. In fact, I would rather see Anoop Desai and Lil Rounds go home before him. Still, as jubilant as the audience and the contestants were when they learned that he had been saved, and even though Matt was moved to tears by it all, I have to say that as a viewer I felt robbed of what should have been a memorable moment this season -- the forced farewell of a talented contestant who just isn't good enough to outlast the others.

It didn't help that the Save came during a week in which the Idol producers made another mammoth blunder. Responding to all that furious complaining from critics and bloggers alike about last week's talent show running nine minutes too long, the producers this week decided on Tuesday that, in an effort to save time and keep the show moving, only two judges would critique each performance rather than all four.

If you agree with my assertion that Simon is the only judge worth listening to, then you'll agree that it was a stupid move by all concerned to cut his airtime in half. And since when is it so difficult to make time for comments from four judges? Past seasons of Idol have featured numerous outspoken guest judges in the mix, and I don't recall the show ever having so many production issues as a result.


As for that now-infamous nine-minute overrun, I feel that experienced producers should know how to bring a show in on time after seven successful years, just as smart network executives should know enough to add an additional half-hour to telecasts of the biggest show on television when they have so much good material with which to work. Any viewer could have told people in both camps that eight performances in 60 minutes minus all that time for commercials would be a tight fit.

But in my humble opinion, there was a little too much crabbing about this matter. I realize that DVRs are all the rage these days, but I think the Tuesday performance shows should be watched live for maximum effectiveness, especially by those all-important viewers who plan to vote. Further, DVR users have nobody but themselves to blame if they haven't learned by now to add at least an extra 10 minutes to programmed recordings of their favorite shows, because broadcast and cable networks alike are increasingly playing fast and loose with running times on their schedules.

The truth is, millions of people who watched that edition live did not miss Adam Lambert's outstanding rendition of Tears for Fears' "Mad World," or the rare spectacle of the usually immobile Simon Cowell rising to his feet afterward. For those who did miss it, it didn't take long for a clip to appear on YouTube and elsewhere.


It's a shame such stuff is happening this season, given the unusually high caliber overall of the contestants, including a couple who have already been eliminated. This is the most talented group to come along in years, and Adam Lambert is the most talked about young talent to appear on this show since Sanjaya Malakar. Of course, everyone was talking about Sanjaya's hair rather than his vocal ability, so that puts Adam on top.

In fact, the steady climb of Adam Lambert is the most exciting story Idol has given us since the ascension of Carrie Underwood (and, before her, Kelly Clarkson). That said, I can totally see Danny Gokey, Kris Allen or Allison Iraheta making their way to the Top 2, and it wouldn't shock me if any one of those three squeaked through with a win.

To continue with my griping -- which should probably be more good-natured than it is, because I am still a huge fan of this show -- it seems to me that the "stars" of Idol must share the blame for some of the recent bad buzz. From where I sit, host Ryan Seacrest has misplaced his youthful enthusiasm and now looks and acts like a business executive who unwittingly stumbled in the side door, found himself on a stage and decided to try his hand at something new.


Meantime, the judges' collective responses no longer carry much weight at all, and their on-camera behavior often deteriorates into a bizarre blend of silliness, confusion and apparent boredom. (I think the camera caught Randy on the verge of yawning during this week's results show.) The low point came a couple of weeks back, when 16-year-old Allison delivered yet another terrific performance only to discover that, while she was singing, Simon had been busily drawing a crayon mustache on Paula.

"Why did you do that?" young Allison asked, as if she were addressing two children who were lobbing spitballs during church.

"Who is the grown-up here?" I wondered, feeling bad for the kid.

Look, the judges only work at Idol a couple hours a week. (I know people who spend more time than that commuting to and from their jobs every day.) From what I hear, Simon, Paula, Randy and Kara are very well compensated for doing so. Is it asking too much for them to bring their A-game to the studio every Tuesday and Wednesday?



Ed Martin is the television critic and programming analyst for the media industry Web site JackMyers.com. The former senior editor of the award-winning, much-missed television and advertising trade magazine Inside Media, Ed has also written for USA Today, Advertising Age, Television Week, Broadcasting & Cable and TV Guide.
Earlier in his career, Ed was publicity director for the independent feature film production and distribution company Vestron Pictures, where he orchestrated publicity campaigns and produced electronic press kits for dozens of movies including the one and only Dirty Dancing. The fact that it is now referred to as a "classic" makes Ed feel old.




mimi said:

I agree with everything you wrote. I seems a shame to penalize 2 contestants the following week, instead of the one performer who had a bad performance that week. Adam is in a class by himself.

Comment posted on April 17, 2009 2:53 PM

giggles said:

My prediction? Adam will win it all....

Huuuuum...Front porch Fridays at a friend's place or my standing Friday night date with Bill Moyers? Easy choice. I'd stay home for Mr. Moyers anytime...! (Doesn't hurt that I just started watching "The Wire" on dvd last night!!)

Comment posted on April 17, 2009 4:11 PM

Omer Tomlinson said:

I just watched the Bill Moyers interview with David Simon...outstanding, thoughtful, cynical and revelatory. If only our civic and business leaders could buy into Simon's observations, we could see daylight ahead for our future. His comments about the throwaway underclass being unimportant in our market-driven culture were dead on. Why is it our fiction writers have a better handle on our problems than those whose job is to solve them? (Fiction writers -- the good ones -- always pay closer attention. Twain. Vonnegut. Just to name two of my favorites. And Simon, he's a third. Thanks for watching, and trusting my BIANCULLI'S BEST BETS recommendation. -- David B.)

Comment posted on April 18, 2009 6:22 AM

MS said:

Believe it or not, a few television viewers still prefer scripted drama and comedy to "reality" and "talent" shows. We were the ones who suffered most when the network overindulged American Idol by allowing a live show to run 9 minutes long. There was no way to end Fringe on time with its short premium-price ad breaks or adjust coding for DVRs without advance notice. Also, those who wanted to record two shows the next hour can't manually tack on extra time every week Idol is on. I did not appreciate having to watch the end of Fringe on my computer screen. When are the networks going to stop alienating the mainly older (I mean older than 30, not seniors) viewers who have the disposable income to appeal to advertisers for the short term goal of stuffing prime time with cheaper "reality" programming?

Comment posted on April 18, 2009 11:53 AM
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