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When American Idoldebuted in 2002 and crowned its first winner, Kelly Clarkson, the reality show quickly became an unstoppable ratings juggernaut, averaging between 20-30 million viewers an episode (in comparison, others shows were barely hitting 10 million).
But like any show, after more than 10 years on the air, Idol has really begun to show its age. Though ratings remained high through Season 8, viewers began to drop off in 2010, at the start of Season 9. The constant game of musical chairs at the judges' table was mostly to blame, but inconsistency on the panel wasn't the only problem. The show strayed from being about the kids who were singing on that stage when producers' manipulation of the contestants started to become obvious. It's no wonder that now, in Season 12, the show has reached an absolute low, barely reaching 11 million viewers in the last weeks of the competition. The final battle between Kree Harrison and Candice Glover airs tonight at 8 p.m. on FOX.
But it's not too late; the show is still beloved by many. And while repeating the success of the series' best seasons is unlikely, there are definitely tweaks that can be made that will allow Idol to regain at least a small amount of its former glory.
The downfall of the show began when it messed with original judges Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul; that trio kept the show at the top of its game from 2002-2008. The magic began to fade with the addition of Kara DioGuardi in 2009; it continued when Abdul left and Ellen DeGeneres was added for one season. Things seemed to perk up a little in Seasons 10 and 11, thanks to the additions of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler -- but without Cowell, the show still wasn't the same. Season 12 may have seemed hopeful with the additions of Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey on the panel. But it only made things worse, as producers focused way too much on the battles between the divas not on the stage. This is one show that should not be about the judges. It needs respected artists and producers who are really there to help mentor the kids. With Jackson officially leaving the show and the rest of the current cast rumored to be departing as well, it's time to get judges who are truly there for the right reasons.
Bring it Back to the Contestants
Which brings us to what fans of Idol really love about this show: The contestants. No one is tuning into this reality series to see Minaj and Carey battle it out -- they can click over to The Real Housewives for that kind of entertainment. But the biggest complaint about this season was how, before viewer voting even opened, producers stacked the deck -- they allowed only mediocre guys to progress through the competition so that they could guarantee a girl winner. This is something the show hasn't had since 2007, when Jordin Sparks took the crown. But after years of finals involving what many call the WGWGs (white guys with guitars), it is pretty obvious what the execs were doing when every cute guitar-toting guy was cut before the live shows. Of course they are going to get their girl winner when they put through guys that will never make it to the Top 5! Producer manipulation is not the way to keep viewers tuned in -- let the viewers decide who they want to be their Idol.
Modern Theme Nights
Over the years -- and especially with the addition of text voting -- Idol has continued to grow its young audience base. But the producers behind the show can't seem to grasp that. Year after year, they keep making contestants sing songs and follow theme nights that were popular years before they were even born. (Burt Bacharach night, anyone?) And for singers who are trying to break into modern-day music, doesn't it make more sense to have them sing current songs more often and show viewers what they can expect when they put an album out? Do we really care to see them sing an oldies song when they can be belting out something by Rihanna or Bruno Mars? Introduce theme nights like Top Radio Hits or Acoustic Night to really show what they are capable of.
Big Star Mentors
And on the topic of old music, the same can be said for the out-of-touch mentors. Yes, some of these guest stars have been great. But how about bringing on some modern artists, like Pink or Beyonce or John Mayer? Not all of these musicians may have interest in being on Idol -- but there are plenty out there who would. They should also be reaching into their catalog of amazing Idol winners and finalists to pass along their knowledge. From Clarkson to Carrie Underwood to Daughtry, they have so many members of the Idol family who would make for killer mentors.
Revamp Results Night
In the early days of Idol, the results show was about spending time with the contestants and getting more commentary from the judges. But in recent years, that all seems to have changed. Now, results night has turned into hour-long promotions for new artists or songs. Aren't viewers tuning in to see the contestants trying to make it in the biz, not see performances by someone like Alicia Keys -- or worse, the judges themselves? And if the producers really want more musical performances, how about bringing back more former contestants? That's who the viewers watching this show would really be excited to see returning to the Idol stage.
Rana Meyer is the Associate Entertainment Editor for iVillage. Find her on Google+.