Television

Simon Cowell is the George Steinbrenner of TV

Remember when American Idol and X-Factor actually cared about the contestants? Yeah, me neither. Although Idol at least pretended to care during its first few seasons. And when they dropped that pretense, the diminishing returns began. So what has Simon Cowell done the past few years to reverse the downward trend? Overspend on high-profile celebrity judges. If this sounds familiar to sports fans, it should. Cowell has borrowed the same M.O. as the owner of the New York Yankees during the 1980’s.

Full disclosure: I do not watch American Idol, X-Factor, or any reality show. So all of this is the point of view of an outsider. But I believe that Idol has lost its way, and X-Factor will never be the hit Cowell wants it to be because it is copying what Idol is doing today, and not what it was doing when it was the #1 show in the U.S. And if they continue to chase A-list celebrities to be judges, the results in the rating will mirror the results of the Yankees in the standings during the 80’s: highly competitive, but zero first place finishes.

When American Idol first aired, here was the collective outlook toward the three judges: an unknown record industry insider, a washed-up pop singer from the late 80’s/early 90’s (at that time was a full decade ago), and an unknown smarmy British record producer. In other words, three people who were not household names. We were learning about the judges at the same time we were learning about Kelly Clarkson. Then they discovered the awful truth: the viewers don’t really care about the legitimate contestants. People wanted to see the train wrecks during the auditions. Viewers did not want mediocrity; they wanted truly awful. They wanted schadenfreude. And to be honest, pop music was also trending that way during the 2000’s. (Hello, advent of Auto-Tune.) I felt sorry for Jackson, Abdul, and Cowell when it comes to the audition process. They had to hear thousands and thousands of terrible singing. And I believe their reactions were genuine… at first. Then they probably got a memo from the network to become more cartoon-ish and more one-dimensional, so that Paula was the sympathetic one; Randy was the neutral one; and Simon was the evil one. So now, the show was no longer about “let’s hear the talentless tryouts,” and more of “let’s see the judges reactions to all of these auditions.” It went from being about the good contestants, to the bad contestants, to being all about the judges.

If the Fox Network wants to recapture the early halcyon days of Idol, they need to go back to their roots. They need to go back to pretending to care about the singers. And for that to happen, they need to jettison the A-list judges, and hire relative unknowns. I’m sure Idol would never do that, (Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest would never leave the show, and I don’t blame them), but maybe X-Factor could. Cowell should go behind the camera, but I doubt he’ll do that. But at the very least, he should hire an experienced music industry insider that is not known outside of the music business, and a former pop singer from the early 2000’s to flank Cowell as the new judges. It is the baseball equivalent of rebuilding the farm system. Otherwise, the network is playing a waiting game of what will happen first: will the audience get bored with the new diva judges, or will the divas get bored with doing the show and leave?

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