'Idol' burnout: Ellen and other problems drag down a TV juggernaut

In the inane words of Randy Jackson: "I'm just not feeling it, dawg."

Many longtime "American Idol" viewers feel the same way. As the singing competition enters the final showdown between dreadlocked folkie Crystal Bowersox and aw-shucks, raspy nice guy Lee DeWyze, the Michael Lynche-sized elephant in the room has become even clearer: What happened to "Idol" and where does it go from here?

Season 9 is a watershed moment in "Idol's" history. It is longtime judge Simon Cowell's final season before he launches another singing competition, "The X Factor," in September 2011.

Paula Abdul was gone this year, replaced by Ellen DeGeneres' forgettable first season. Many cite a lackluster talent pool this year for the show's fading ratings.

Longtime "Idol" watcher Jasson Seiden, 27 of Cockeysville, says via e-mail the show has simply "grown stale," offering little variation from season to season.

"I remember when I would come into work and it would be the first subject of conversation," Seiden says. "This is no longer. I haven't heard a friend or co-worker talk about 'American Idol' all season."

This is clearly "Idol" at a crossroads. So what the hell happened?

"Idol" is still a singing competition. Unfortunately, this season's singing has often been unremarkable. There was too much fat, with contestants in the Top 12 that had no shot of being the next big pop star. (Sorry, Lacey Brown, Paige Miles, Tim Urban, Didi Benami …).

Singing wasn't the only deficiency. Season 9 did not produce an Adam Lambert, Allison Iraheta or even a Clay Aiken, the idiosyncratic character to root for. Even Sanjaya Malakar would have livened things up. And that was the problem: The personalities just weren't there.

"Do we need another soft-rock white guy on 'Idol'?" wonders Jojo Girard, Baltimore's Mix 106.5's morning-show host. "That's what Lee would be. Last year was really entertaining. Whether you liked Adam Lambert or not, he was creative. He analyzed music. No one does that this season."

The audience's lack of connection with dynamic performers could be responsible in part for eroding viewership. Ratings this season have averaged 24.5 million viewers, a far cry from the 30.5 million average who tuned in for Season 5 in 2006. And in the first week of April, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," packed with a more buzzy cast (Pamela Anderson, Kate Gosselin), dethroned "Idol" for the first time by more than a million viewers.

According to Billboard, average ratings have dropped 8.3 percent since 2006.

"I've been calling it a Taylor Hicks kind of year," says Reagan Warfield, Girard's co-host. "It's one of those off years."


The judging has been off as well. DeGeneres made her debut this season, taking the place of Abdul. The results were mixed: DeGeneres' lighthearted critiques yielded bizarre metaphors (who could forget the "ripe banana" comparison?) and trite commentary ("You look great," "You're so cute.")

Maura Johnston, music writer and "Idol" blogger for, says that while she finds DeGeneres "funny and a good talk show host," she thought her style on "Idol" was "superfluous."

"I think she's really bad," Johnston says, pointing to DeGeneres' noticeable nervousness. "It was unnerving to watch her get so tripped up. It was very uncomfortable to watch." DeGeneres will have four more seasons to find her footing, having signed a five-year contract with "Idol."

Some have commented that letting Abdul go was a mistake. Even Cowell, who often mocked Abdul's rah-rah spirit, told Oprah Winfrey last week he believes Abdul's absence affected ratings.

Prickly though popular, Cowell is arguably the face of "Idol." His brutally honest judging has made him a villain and hero, giving the show a feeling of legitimacy.

Warfield is optimistic there can be a successful transition to a Cowell-less "Idol." "I think it will take more than Simon leaving [for the show] to fade away," he says. "If they bring in some amazing judges, who knows?

"Idol" must replace Simon with a judge who has the same keen eye for stars, such as Interscope/Geffen chairman Jimmy Iovine. Johnston says "Idol" mentor Harry Connick Jr. would make an excellent Simon replacement.

Girard, though, is unsure that anyone could fit Cowell's snarky shoes.

"I think the show's done," Girard said. "One season without him and it will die."


It's not too late for "Idol" to reclaim the must-tune-in excitement it once oozed and desperately needs again. Girard says he still loves the basic premise of the show.

"Someone who is selling paint somewhere in Chicago, who is a talented musician, gets an opportunity to become a professional musician," he says, referring to DeWyze's backstory. "It could work if they can get back to that, like it was the first year.

"It's become a spectacle."

Both Warfield and Johnston suggested revamping the weekly theme nights — which this season included weeks of all Elvis Presley songs and all Rolling Stones songs.

"Let's make it contemporary," Warfield says. "Singing Sinatra is no measure of a pop star. ... Let's either have them create their own music or have them sing contemporary songs. Do a Lady Gaga night."

It's not out of the question that "Idol" can regain its water-cooler-dominating presence. But if it keeps the status quo, expect to see more "Idol" fans switching with Cowell to "The X Factor."

Or, even worse, those fans could find dancing with celebrities a lot more interesting than watching a paint-seller become a music star.

Wesley Case is a presentation architect at b. Follow him on Twitter, @wesleycase.

Photos by Fox