A New Era in American (Idol) Democracy

Online voting is another wildcard in what’s shaping up as a refreshing season of change.

"American Idol" reached a modest benchmark of sorts last week: the ratings for Thursday’s show reportedly beat the comparable episode from last season when Simon Cowell's departure plans dominated the proceedings.

That's a sign of success, not so much for the revamped judging lineup, but for this year's return of the show's primary focus to the contestants instead of panel-driven dramas.

On Tuesday night, "American Idol" took another big step toward making the competition more about the hopefuls – and the fans – by instituting online voting, via Facebook.

Ryan Seacrest declared it a moment in "'Idol' history," in typical "Idol" overstatement. But we'll add our own possibly overblown observation: At a time when the Internet is being used, to differing extents, in the Middle East and elsewhere as a tool of fostering democracy, it's worth noting that the most popular show in the U.S. is taking its peculiar brand of democracy online.

The juxtaposition can be read in different ways: While some are fighting in the streets for basic rights, citizens of a country where less than two-thirds of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots in the last presidential election are likely going to click in by the millions for their favorite wannabe pop stars from the comfort of home.

The “Idol” move online also can be taken as a recognition that more of life is being conducted on the Web. One positive byproduct of the Fox show could be getting young people used to raising their virtual voices in a focused way and having some impact, which hopefully will plant the seeds of future, more serious participation in the public discourse on the Internet and beyond.

The in-person discourse on "Idol" in this key 10th season has been surprisingly pleasant and fun. Steven Tyler can be goofy ("You've got the what-it-is-ness!"), but is generally on point and generous with his advice and kindness. Jennifer Lopez comes across as a caring nurturer of talent. A more serious Randy Jackson has largely dropped his “dawg” patter, and strives to keep the show going at a brisk pace, without Cowell's brusqueness.

We initially didn't know what to expect with the two big stars joining the show, but fears an ego-fest have proven unfounded. Even when Lopez wept after dismissing good-guy contestant Chris Medina, the moment was less about her than him and his touching story of caring for his critically injured fiancée.

Maybe the judges’ generally positive approach can be attributed in part to the stronger talent pool than last year's crop. Lowering the minimum contestant age to 15 has given show a fresher, more youthful feel, even if there's no one younger than 16 in the Top 24.

Those 24 are set to be halved to 12 finalists Thursday in the first live results show of the season, likely giving an indication of the impact of the new voting system. Adding online voting to the old phone and text votes would seem to offer a new level of fairness – especially, as The New York Times notes, after years of perceived advantages for contestants favored in the South, where free-texting sponsor AT&T dominates. Still, letting Facebook users cast 50 votes per show represent an additional wildcard, and as well a recognition that “Idol” fans vote often, if not early (perhaps not the best example for young future voters).

But change, as we’ve seen in areas of far more import, sometimes can be positive in itself. After last year’s weakest winner ever, Lee DeWyze, and Kris Allen’s upset over Adam Lambert in 2009, we're eager to find out whether our faith in American (Idol) democracy can be restored.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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