Will Fans Return To A Nicer 'Idol'?

Jan 15, 2014
Originally published on January 15, 2014 7:44 pm



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

"American Idol" is back for its 12th season tonight. The show's huge success gave rise to an entire genre of reality talent shows on TV. For the last few seasons, though, ratings for "American Idol" have been off. So they've freshened up the format and brought in some new judges. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says "American Idol" is trying something new: being nice.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: If you had to use one word to describe "American Idol's" season last year, that word would be hostility.


NIKKI MINAJ: No, but I feel like we're kind of like - we're going into...

MARIAH CAREY: I'm sorry - that's what I do, Nikki. And I sing.

MINAJ: Are you country? Are you country? Do you like country? Do you like country? And I kind of feel like we're...

DEGGANS: Judges Nikki Minaj and Mariah Carey were all over each other. Country star Keith Urban was often stuck in the middle, while long-time judge Randy Jackson became a helpless bystander.


MINAJ: You guys make comments about everybody in the pop, you know, in popular music all day, nonstop.

KEITH URBAN: It's you guys.

MINAJ: Not you, Keith. Randy and Mariah. And I...

CAREY: Really?

MINAJ: Yeah.

CAREY: Is that what I do?

DEGGANS: The fighting wasn't what fans wanted to see. But "Idol" turned conflict into a television phenomenon just 12 years earlier as persnickety judge Simon Cowell sniped at Paula Abdul.


SIMON COWELL: I don't want to be rude, but did you turn up at this audition today to be told by Paula Abdul you can do Kermit the Frog?

PAULA ABDUL: I am - you can't - well, you can (unintelligible). Shut up.

DEGGANS: Back then, Cowell's merciless putdowns of mediocre singers were considered hilarious. But nasty doesn't work so well right now. Keith Urban sits in the judge's table on "Idol" this season. And he says the audience has been transformed by rude comments on social media.

URBAN: What it's like to have bad things said about you is starting to affect everybody now because of the Internet and because of blogs and because of Instagrams and Facebook and Twitter. And there's so many portals and platforms now for people to vent their opinion of other people. And suddenly, people are starting to feel what it's like to be on the receiving end of it.

DEGGANS: So, "Idol" producers found a new attitude. They hired charismatic, wisecracking singer Harry Connick Jr., who joins Urban and pop star Jennifer Lopez tonight at the judges' table. And the network is really promoting their easy-going chemistry.


HARRY CONNICK JR.: The judges love each other and it's really fun. I am impressed by the rocks that you got.

DEGGANS: Awful contestants don't get a lot of screen time anymore, which makes "Idol" seem a lot more like it's biggest rival, NBC's "The Voice." The NBC show's not-so-secret weapon is the playful banter between superstar coaches like country star Blake Shelton and pop singer Adam Levine.


ADAM LEVINE: I do believe that Taylor Swift is not primarily a country artist.

BLAKE SHELTON: No, we take ownership of Taylor Swift in country music.

DEGGANS: But "Idol's" challenge is to turn toward nice without looking like a pale copy of its biggest competitor. "American Idol's" innovation has spawned a bunch of competitors, from "America's Got Talent" to "The X Factor," which means "Idol" needs more than a trio of jovial judges to stand out from the crowd it helped create.

BLOCK: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.