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'American Idol' needs to make big changes

Dale Roe
New 'American Idol' judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez joined veteran Randy Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest in Austin on Oct. 9 to answer questions about the show.

"American Idol" is in trouble.

On a subtle but steady decline since the departure of original judge Paula Abdul in 2009, the Fox show's downward trajectory became steeper as last season's sub-par talent warbled on. The seemingly unstoppable show betrayed its first signs of ratings vulnerability. And it made a cliff's-edge dead stop at season's end with the exodus of judges Kara DioGuardi, Ellen DeGeneres and — most importantly — the show's signature personality, Simon Cowell.

As "Idol" returns Wednesday, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe stands at the edge of that precipice, teetering over a make-or-break season that will determine the show's future in the face of wearying fans and competition from the upcoming debut of Cowell's new talent show, "The X Factor." A new set and bandleader (Ray Chew) just aren't going to cut it.

Here are three changes "Idol" could make to shore up its position on the TV charts:

Choose talented contestants

Have you worn out that Lee DeWyze CD yet? Maxed out your iTunes card downloading his stuff? Do you even remember who Lee DeWyze is? The debut album from last season's champ sold fewer copies in its first week of release than any of the previous eight "Idol" winners' initial offerings (and was surpassed by runner-up Crystal Bowersox's debut, on shelves a month less than DeWyze's).

Let this sink in: DeWyze was bested by Taylor Hicks.

"American Idol" should be all about the contestants. Yet the last competitor with any buzz was Adam Lambert, and that was two years ago. It's been almost six years since the show produced a bona fide superstar, Carrie Underwood.

After two especially bland seasons, the show needs a stellar group of competitors. Fox is betting that the addition of entertainers Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler to the judging panel (joining the only remaining original judge, Randy Jackson) will result in a strong talent pool, but I'm not so sure. Although the pair undoubtedly have talent (and should be able to spot it), they also need to ingratiate themselves to viewers, who seem only to want to know, "Who's going to be the next Simon?"

I asked Tyler and Lopez about image cultivation last summer during the Austin auditions, and they claimed that performing never crosses their minds. They forget there are cameras present, they said, and focus only on the contestants. Yet, a preview video from Fox with selected auditions showed the judges making spectacles of themselves and, worse, sending marginally talented contestants whom they liked for one nonmusical reason or another to Hollywood.

I'm worried that the presence of such larger-than-life personalities will take the focus further away from the contestants, where it belongs. That can be helpful when the talent's not so talented, but it's not so helpful if you're really trying to find the next Fantasia Barrino.

Still, the show blew its audition process wide open with the inclusion of online submissions, and that's a good sign. Perhaps a larger pool will result in stronger swimmers.

Fix the voting system

"Idol" has been plagued by the unfortunate decision at the beginning of its run to have Americans cast votes for their favorite contestants instead of choosing the hopeful they'd like to see sent packing. This has split the vote and resulted in weak contestants such as Season 6's Sanjaya Malakar and Season 7's Jason Castro sticking around far too long. Although those performances can be initially entertaining, they grow old fast and give an impression of a weaker talent pool than is probably accurate.

It's doubtful the show will correct course at this stage of the game (imagine the confusion among voters and the resulting post-elimination accusations), but it would make for a stronger field and more intense competition.

Smaller changes are in the works: News service Reuters reports that producers are looking into adding online voting to the mix of phone call and text message voting currently allowed, and are planning to speed up the elimination process, getting to a smaller and perhaps stronger field faster.

Let 'em dangle

A couple of seasons ago, the show loosened its musical collar, allowing contestants to accompany themselves on guitars, keyboards, etc. That change added drama to the competition (even if it didn't expose any real instrumental prodigies).

It's time for "Idol" to stretch again by allowing contestants — many of whom consider themselves songwriters — to perform their original compositions. There's real train wreck potential in the idea (allowing hopefuls to create their own arrangements of existing songs has already resulted in some awful numbers), but it could weed out posers more quickly and possibly reveal undiscovered talent.

Since DioGuardi is gone, the show should let the final two perform an original number (if they so desire) instead of something bland and pompous from the Idol non-hit factory.

Entertainment Weekly reports that the show's new musical consultant, Jimmy Iovine, will enlist songwriters and producers to work with the contestants on original numbers, but it's unclear whether they will be sprucing up the contestants' own songs or simply writing new, original numbers for them. I'm betting it's the latter but hoping for the former.

Other rumored changes

  • An "Idol" mansion the contestants would occupy during the course of the competition, which could add an interesting "Big Brother" aspect to the proceedings.
  • A significant change to the show's often disastrous "theme" weeks — instead of being locked into a genre, the themes might straddle eras.
  • A revised "sing for your life" option in which an unknown number of contestants could sing a capella or accompanied by a solitary instrument in a hail Mary shot at the finals.

Those aren't bad ideas, but when it comes to the increasingly stale "Idol," just about any change would be welcome.

'American Idol': 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19, and Thursday, Jan. 20, on Fox