"American Idol" all too often gets lumped in with the (mostly) inferior TV talent contests it spawned over the last decade. But as the in-transition show returns for a crucial 10th season, it's fate may be tied closest to the overachieving, fictional offspring it helped birth: Glee.
The Hollywood Reporter this week outlined a slew of changes planned for "Idol," which returns Jan. 19 with two new judges and big hopes of rebounding from its most disappointing season.
The most significant of the changes – save, perhaps, for online voting – is last on The Hollywood Reporter's list of eight: selling recordings made by the finalists in the weeks before the winner is picked.
The music sales gimmick rips a page from the Glee songbook – and could be key to the talent show's revival.
Part of the genius of Glee is taking advantage of the instant-gratification expectations of its young, Internet-using audience by offering songs from the show on iTunes after the program ends. The impulse buys have helped Glee break sales records, and keep fans humming between episodes.
Setting up a similar system on Idol, would serve much the same purpose – and sales just might prove the strongest indicator of who deserves to win.
The Fox shows have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship of sorts, with Glee in its early days benefiting from constant promos during Idol. While there are obvious differences between the programs, both tap into a formula that combines youthful dreams of singing stardom and post-adolescent melodrama with adult snark, tinged by the bitter reality of experience.
Both shows, though, work best when the emphasis is on the kids. For Idol to succeed this season, the show needs to be less about the chemistry of the judges (will there be fireworks between big-ego/seen-better-days stars Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler? Will Randy Jackson play referee?) and more about the contestants.
The planned changes cited by The Hollywood Reporter – including having contestants make music videos and revamping theme nights – seem smartly aimed at keeping the spotlight on the performers.
Glee is boosted by a great cast, handpicked from auditions we'll never see. With Idol, the audience largely decides the fate of the players (we can only hope the talent pool is better this year than last).
Success ultimately may not only be about ratings and voting tallies but also about quick-turnaround song sales. Time will tell if the audience will buy any of it.
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.