How Best to Make ‘American Idol’ More Vital

Unscripted producers weigh in on ways ABC can change the show and make the most of its rebirth

Why This Matters

With several networks bringing back departed shows, eyes are on ABC as it reimagines American Idol.

Perhaps the biggest story coming out of Upfront Week was American Idol’s return to television after its Fox farewell in 2016, with many wondering how its new home, ABC, might change the format of the once-mighty program.

Channing Dungey, ABC entertainment president, talked up what might be a significant change to the Idol format when speaking with reporters during Upfront Week.

“It will be very clear,” she said, “that it’s got ABC’s hallmark and brand on it.”

B&C reached out to several industry insiders, most of them reality producers, to see what they would do with American Idol if they were in charge of shaping the show for its ABC re-entry. Most suggested a substantial overhaul of the program, rather than a light tweak. Several said a more digital approach to American Idol, to match our increasingly mobile lifestyle, would help position it for the longer term.

American Idol has not kept up with the way we consume media,” Steve Safran, a reality TV and news producer, said.

He and others suggested having the auditions exist online. Instead of a hopeful singer having to trek to a major city to be seen by judges, the thinking is, have them send in a video of a performance. “Everybody’s got iPhones,” Michael Rosenblum, founder of video training site TheVJ. com and of The New York Times’ NYT TV, said. “iPhones shoot video.”

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Thousands of audition videos would make for a lively web destination, the producers said, and users could watch the videos and vote via an app. Maybe the audition video of a performer who was shot down by the judges goes viral, and gives the artist a new shot.

“There’s a whole online element they are completely missing,” Rosenblum said. “American Idol is structured like The Ed Sullivan Show. Make it 21st century, make it cutting-edge.”

Within the show’s current architecture, which involves auditions in cities across America, Safran suggested working with Fox stations to make TV specials out of a certain city’s auditions. “Give a half-hour for local affiliates to run,” he said. “You’ve already shot it — it’s easy to make a show out of that.”

The emergence of The Voice on NBC, which debuted in 2011, means Idol has to add considerable “freshness,” according to one producer who insisted on anonymity, as it relaunches. Singing-show competition is much stiffer now than when American Idol debuted in 2002. “With The Voice, the chairs and the mentorship, it’s so brilliant,” he said. “For Idol, to have contestants sing and have the judges comment, I don’t think it’s enough. They have to do something else.”

Edgier Music

Others said the music on American Idol has gotten too “poppy,” as one reality producer put it, and should be broadened to include more country, hip hop and other musical genres that had been overlooked by the show.

Alex Nelson, a producer at Studio 71, talked of “edgier music” being performed on American Idol. “They should open up themselves to different artists in different genres,” she said. “Artists from all walks of life, from all kinds of music.”

Safran suggested opening up the competition to bands. Besides getting a wider selection of artists in the running, he noted that bands can promote their performances on Idol at their live shows and on social media platforms. Believing that Idol winners are, with few exceptions, quickly forgotten, he also said that opening up things for bands will make the eventual winner better suited for the rigors of a life in music.

“They’re not turning out ‘American Idols’ — they’re turning out people who can do vocal gymnastics to pop songs,” Safran said. “Idols are true musicians, not just great singers.”

Broadening the musical genres would also bring out a more diverse pool of contestants. More minority contestants in the home stretch means more minority viewers, said Preston Beckman, former senior strategist at Fox and chairman of media consulting outfit The Beckman Group. “Over time, the show got less diverse when it came down to the Final 12,” he said. “You could see that reflected in the ratings.”

Others suggested smaller performance venues than the theaters Idol would typically use. That would offer more of a close-up of the performer. “Make it more personality-based,” said Nelson. “More character-driven, rather than spectacle-driven.”

Another suggested outdoor performances, to change the vibe and give the audience a fresh look. “Give it some air, give it some life,” said a producer. “Give it more of a feel of a live summer event. A festival feel.”

Plenty of ‘Idol’ Ideas

The suggestions from our crew of insiders went on and on. One talked about an online after-show, as NBC.com does with hit drama This Is Us, as an easy way to extend the Idol brand.

While Katy Perry has been lined up to be a judge in the new American Idol, some suggested judges with less star power, noting how Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson were not exactly household names when Idol debuted in 2002. Spend the money on other aspects of the show, rather than star judges. “What they paid Steven Tyler was obscene,” said one producer who asked to be nameless. “No one cares about Steven Tyler.”

It’s notable that Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson, singers who got famous on American Idol, have both agreed to join The Voice. Some say, let The Voice have the Alisters, and instead fill the judges’ tables with savvy vocal coaches or record label executives who can provide rock-solid advice to singers.

The industry insiders were mixed on whether ABC should allow Disney synergies to happen on Idol, such as a star of a Disney movie appearing on the show with its premiere approaching. Some said it would help set Idol apart from the TV competition. Others said viewers would be turned off by such a display of corporate symbiosis.

Don’t Gut the Show

Yet some believe that changing Idol too much is a mistake. Once ratings start to slow, Beckman said network executives’ first thought is to shake up the format on a given show. He cautions against it. “It’s dangerous to say, ‘I have a brand; I can do whatever I want with it,’” he said.

Beckman said watching episodes of Idol during its ratings-devouring heyday would help ABC executives figure out how to make the most of American Idol 2.0. “They should think about what worked at the start, and how they can bring back that feeling, instead of trying to create a new feeling,” he said.