Summer is never the hottest season for television. Audiences are
diminished so the networks resort to reruns or bizarre (and cheap)
experiments. For the Fox entertainment network, it's usually a season to
live up to its own caricature with series like "Bachelorettes in Alaska."
But Fox bottled this summer's hottest hit going in the opposite direction
and drawing from an ancient idea: "American Idol," a simple talent contest
for aspiring singers.
By the time the show pared its top 10 contestants down to the
winner -- soul-belting, growling Kelly Clarkson -- an average of 23 million
people, a huge number by today's standards, were watching. That's not to say
that every song and every singer was delightful to watch. Still, television
has had a gaping hole, having abandoned the old-fashioned variety show where
entertainers simply ... entertained. That lapsed tradition says a lot about
how our culture has changed, along with our lifestyles.
Until recent decades, the everyday working world often being a
harsh, demanding place, entertainment presented an escape with light, airy,
comedic fare meant to put a smile on your face. People went to the movies to
see elaborate rollouts of Broadway musicals. Try comparing our current music
in its sophistication with those songs of old. "Composer" and "lyricist" are
not words one should bestow on the average hit songwriter today who produces
masterpieces like "boom, boom, boom, let's go back to my room." (For that
matter, the very word "music" doesn't apply to much of what my children
Technology today has made our working lives easier, and often
more sedentary, even boring, which explains somewhat why entertainment has
moved to a new opposite. The dramatic tendency toward youth-oriented themes
in the world of entertainment inevitably led to more and more emphasis on
teen interests -- starting with that which makes hormones explode.
So it's not at all merely an economic revolution. The TV variety
show was also ridiculed to death by snooty cultural critics who thought this
genre wasn't gritty enough, not based on "reality," as if otherworldliness
was hopelessly sappy and uncool, meant for the fuddy-duddies. Entertainment
had to be "hip" -- racy and irreverent -- to succeed.
No more. "American Idol" succeeded without most of those modern
touches. The contestants were all aged 23 and younger, which pitched the
show directly at a young audience. They did sass up the contest by having
the judges stage fights. They did have someone supply judge and former pop
star Paula Abdul with off-color insults for the toughest judge, with lines
like "This is what happens when you're breast-fed by your father."
You could say the show succeeded in spite of itself. The hosts
were unfailingly amateurish. To fill the gaps between singers, the producers
forced the contestants into some of the unfunniest skits since "Sonny and
Cher," all the while blatantly plugging the Ford Focus. But young people
still wanted to see these young nobodies -- fresh from waiting tables and
singing for birthday parties -- try to become a singing sensation. Even if
the singers were struggling, at least they were offering old favorites from
past decades -- even a big band show -- that haven't been heard on TV for
In another bow to tradition, they only auditioned ... well,
singers. They didn't have rappers trying to unmusically rhyme their way to
the title with all their thug-daddy braggadocio. So the show may have
started with the kids, but the parents also came along for the ride.
Already, some critics have suggested even the show's best
artists aren't ready for the big time. But they've all been out there alone
with a microphone, singing in formats that aren't their favorites. By
contrast, many "singers" today -- think Britney Spears and Janet Jackson --
are poster girls first, barely dressed dancers second, and singers only
after several layers of studio magic.
In a sense, "American Idol" was a reality show -- no actors, no
scripts and a competition. Viewers could be interactive by calling in by the
millions to vote for their favorites. But unlike "Survivor" or "Big
Brother," nobody was going to win by lying, cheating and manipulating, and
no one was calling in to knock people out of the competition. It was a
democracy, and a meritocracy -- let the best performer win. And there's yet
another old standard brought back to life.
So give Fox credit for breaking the mold (and given Fox's
programming, "mold" can have multiple meanings.) There will be additional
benefits because you can bet Fox will repeat the "Idol" formula while rival
networks seek to match the idea and dilute the Fox franchise. Finally, the
networks are giving us a programming copycat trend we can enjoy instead of
endure. Let's see a few more of these flowers bloom.