8 Ways To Fix American Idol – Fast

It’s no secret that American Idol is a broken record this year – pretty much every website and magazine out there is saying the same thing. This season’s crop of contestants are singularly failing to impress – with one clear exception – while Simon just comes across as bored and irritated, Ryan is going slightly mad and everything from the set, the eliminations, song choices and pre-performance packages are feeling tired.

Now with Simon Cowell nearing his final show, competition nipping at Idol’s heels (to be beaten by Dancing With The Stars – oh the shame!) and Cowell’s own X Factor launching in the fall of 2011, the time to take action is imminent.

As an Executive Producer I’ve worked on a lot of competition shows over the years including two music reality series – the BBC’s Fame Academy (American Idol meets Big Brother) and Fuse’s Redemption Song (Idol x The Bad Girls Club), which I also created.

So here’s 8 ways I’d shake up Idol before Season 10 auditions kick off in the summer.

1) START PRODUCING THE PANEL: Okay Simon’s up and out in just a few week’s time – leaving a huge void in the judging panel – but really Cowell’s departure is only part of the show’s problem.

At the moment, barring everyone’s favorite Brit only Kara (who’s stepped up her critiques massively since last season) is actually giving proper critiques. Original judge Randy Jackson has gotten lazier and lazier week by week, throwing out nonsensical comments (“Katie Stevens sounds like Christina Aguilera’), tired phrases (‘a hundred, million, bazillion percent yes’ and the now pointless ‘pitchy’ observation) and ridiculously over praising key contestants (Michael Lynche simply isn’t the R & B sensation Randy wants him to be and NO-ONE is calling out his stank attitude).

Meanwhile Ellen, who everyone in the world (myself included) adores, just isn’t adding anything to the mix. Her lack of music knowledge and background IS a problem no matter how much Fox execs spin it otherwise. And Ellen’s clearly falling into the Paula Abdul over-praising trap. If everyone is ‘great’ and ‘amazing’ the words lose all meaning and you lose all credibility as a judge. Both judges need a seriously strong producer to come in and actually point out some of these flaws to them. They both need to watch their critiques and see what they’re doing right – and wrong. At the moment both judges feel completely unproduced. But smart talent understands and appreciates feedback… so let them have it!

2) THE SIMON FACTOR: And then there’s the Simon issue. Some of the names being thrown around to replace Simon – Mariah’s ex-husband Tommy Mottola for example – frankly worry me. Not that they can’t do the job. But at this stage of the show whoever comes in to replace Simon needs to have a big presence to fill the biggest void in television.

That’s why I was excited by the idea of Elton John (who’s now apparently passed – but we shall see) – he’s got the charisma, music knowledge, public persona and crucially the edge to more than hold his own. If not Elton, than how about Steven Tyler, George Michael or John Mayer? Why not ditch Ellen, shoot for Madonna and go back to a 3-person panel.

But above all the new Simon has to have bite. The show can’t handle another Paula or Ellen. It needs sour NOT sweet. This decision alone could doom the franchise.

3) PLAY THE WILD CARD AGAIN: Wow, what a sad sack of talent this season has produced on the singing front. Weeks into the finals and it still feels like we’re at the Top 36 stage. When a contestant like Tim Urban, who was originally rejected from the Top 24, stands a strong chance of going Top 5 you know you’re in trouble.

Where did it all go wrong? Well for starters the Wild Card Round should be a permanent fixture on Idol – allowing the judges to correct the public’s voting mistakes – there was no way that waifish Lily Scott or trembling (but talented) Alex Lambert should have been eliminated before the Top 12. American got those decisions badly wrong.

4) RAISE THE AGE RANGE: Next move raise the age range back up again to 18 – or even 21! As we’re seeing this season with the likes of Katie Stevens and Aaron Kelly, younger contestants just don’t have the self-awareness and musical knowledge to hold their own on the Idol stage. The judges keep babbling about song choice but these kids (and that’s what they are really) don’t know music well enough to make strong choices. That’s why you end up with karaoke performances and done-to-death songs week after week (I never want to hear Against All Odds, Alone or I Will Always Love You ever again on Idol).

Sure raising the age range would limit the number of auditionees – but here’s an idea – why not extend the upper age past 28 – maybe to 30 or 32 perhaps to compensate?

5) MIX UP THE MENTORS: How refreshing was it to hear Adam Lambert giving proper critiques and advice to this year’s contestants (‘that was boring’, ‘his face is just dead’) It’s a quality sadly lacking from most of the music show’s guest mentors who are there simply to plug their singles and terrified of coming across as mean or unsupportive of new talent.

Alicia Keys is adorable – but really did anyone really think she was going to offer harsh or helpful critiques? It was the same during the judging rounds where Joe Jonas (I think he said one word during his whole episode) Avril Lavigne (as brattish as the press always makes her out to be) and Victoria Beckham (why?) all underwhelmed.

Idol is a plum publicity slot so the producers should be able to pick and choose who gets those coveted slots – not just grab the biggest name possible. Think about personality as well as publicity when it comes to picking future mentors. Pink is super-smart and sometimes spiky and would make a great mentor – or failing that her frequent songwriting partner Linda Perry (who I know from a first hand source is a real piece of work – but hey it’ll make good TV). Or how about the razor tongued Boy George or the outspoken Dixie Chicks. Basically anyone with a pulse and personality. Please!

6) THEME THERE, DONE THAT: Really how many times do we have to suffer through ‘Songs From The Year You Were Born’, ‘Billboard Number Ones’ or ‘R&B’ or ‘Country’ nights. These are lazy themes for a show that lives and breathes laziness. Idol should take a page out of a reality show like Project Runway that made its reputation on inventive challenges and twists and start shaking things up.

How about Duets Night (with randomly drawn contestants picking their singing partners); No Instruments Week (please God get rid of all those guitars this season); One Hit Wonder Week (who’ll go karaoke and who’ll pick an overlooked classic?); Idol Brings Back Week (former Idol contestants return and contestants have to pick one each as their mentor all week) or All Mixed Up (girls have to sing songs made famous by guys and vice verse – that’s how you fit Boy George in). Time to get creative – and stop being so obvious. And above all no more Beatles / Lennon-McCartney nights!

7) IT’S A COMPETITION, GET COMPETITIVE: All along Idol has been the lone reality show that stressed contestant harmony over back stabbing and bitching. It’s a shame – as that’s what makes most reality shows so compelling. And it’s not that contestants need to completely slag one another off – but a bit of honest feedback wouldn’t go amiss either. ‘Group day’ is always the highlight of Hollywood Week and transferring some of that frisson to the main Idol stage could work wonders for the show.

What if contestants had to divide rehearsal time with their mentor between them (who’ll over-run and cost their competitors time?) Or pick a contestant to save from the bottom 3 each week? Or give ‘safe’ singers a Contestants Save – which they could use once – and once only – each season. Hearing the contestants debate who should stay and who should go could really shake things up!

On top of that stop casting contestants on back-story alone (how tiresome are all the ‘triumphing over adversity’ tales becoming) and start casting characters. Because really – that’s how you become a star.

The reason Crystal has the best shot a music career over someone like Casey James isn’t just her vocals. It’s that he has zero personality on and off stage – and would be eaten alive by the industry – while she fires off zingers every time she opens her mouth.

It’s why Adam Lambert’s career has taken off – and Kris Allen’s really hasn’t. Why Jordin Sparks and Ruben Studdard have seen their record sales plummet and why Kelly Clarkson still sells today. Being a star is about much, more than just having a great voice. A back-story will only get you so far in the show.

8 ) AND FINALLY: And that’s not all – here’s a few other, instant ways to instantly improve Idol!

–       Lose the group number – lip-synced or live it’s always a train wreck. Cool contestants like Crystal and Daughtry will forever have this karaoke shame etched in their memories.

–       Only ex-Idol contestants get to perform on Results Night. I’d much rather see a Melinda Doolittle or Blake Lewis on stage – then another Kesha or Rihanna. Especially when the latter give terrible live vocal performances.

–       Stop the Simon / Ryan banter – it’s never funny, always awkward and a very tired insider joke.

–       Start varying up the Idol Gives Back beneficiaries. Charity apathy sets in when it’s the same key causes each year. How many Idol in Africa packages can you sit through?

But what do you think? Is Idol broken – and how can it be fixed? Go ahead and weigh in… I’d love to hear your thoughts…