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Not Watching 'American Idol' this Season? You're Missing Out (Opinion)

Thanks to some key tweaks and promising talent, the show is surprisingly entertaining on its 13th go-round.

Caleb Johnson 2014 L
Michael Becker / Fox
Caleb Johnson performs "Dazed and Confused."

Spare us the numbers because we’ve already heard the bad news ad nauseam: not only is American Idol viewership down this year, the ratings have basically jumped off a cliff. Those who thought it couldn’t get worse after season 12’s precipitous drop -- in the double digits, as it is again in 2014 -- were sorely mistaken. The latest episode of season 13 only pulled a 6-share, a smidgen short of the 10 million mark at 9.83 million viewers.

It’s a shame, really -- not just because Idol is a series that changed the face of television (and still serves as a reminder of the importance of music in every person’s life) -- but also because, thanks to some key tweaks, the show is surprisingly entertaining this season.

Take, for starters, the talent pool. Season 13’s remaining nine contestants are strangers to most Americans, but a few of the bunch not only show real promise, they have the charisma to keep you interested. Among them: rocker Caleb Johnson, whose take on Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” on Wednesday’s show stayed true to the song’s sludgy origins and felt more like an episode of pioneering singing competition Rock Star. In fact, Johnson pulled off Robert Plant so well that it was easy to forget that he only played a 1-minute, 40-second version (Rickey Minor, looking somewhat scary in rock garb, snapped you back to real-time, however). Ditto for Jena Irene, whose vocal style rides the upper register in a similar way to -- dare we say it? -- Kelly Clarkson. She chose Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” for her I’m With the Band tune and did the perennial right.

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Other songs performed on Wednesday included Fleetwood Mac’s classic “Rihannon,” The Beatles’ epic “The Long and Winding Road” and the lesser-known “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” -- not the corny fare which Idol viewers had become accustomed and numbed to.

To be sure, Idol’s new team of producers, which includes veterans of the MTV Video Music Awards (the Miley Cyrus edition) Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager, have done a stellar job of getting rid of some pesky Idol annoyances -- the finger-counting display when a contestant’s voting phone number is announced, Randy Jackson’s endless dawg calls, the woe-is-me sob stories, the no-phones-in-the-studio audience policy -- and spiced up some key elements, like the results night performers (the buzzy Royal Teeth and Jake Bugg, in recent weeks), the look of the show and the set, and the weekly elimination kabuki that goes down between the finalists and Ryan Seacrest. Also fine-tuned (finally): the long-derided group number, which for the first time in many years, didn’t reek of cheese on performance night.

To boot, the process is faster, cleaner and clearer. And the judges look like they're genuinely enjoying themselves. Frontrunners are obvious and flash-in-the-pans don't last long (we're looking at you, MK Nobilette), which is how it should be on a show like American Idol that purports to be on a genuine mission to find the next music superstar. (Harry Connick Jr. is certainly taking that mandate seriously.)

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Of course, we here at The Hollywood Reporter realize that Idol's success rate is not unlike the music industry's -- maybe 1.5 out of 10 acts will see some momentum and a semblance of a proper career. The Carrie Underwoods and Phillip Phillipses of the world are the exception, not the rule. Which brings us back to season 13 and its good fortune of offering variety. No two singers are the same, it seems, and there's not the obvious pair who cancel each other out or make for a dull finale. Should Caleb and Jena go up against each other in May -- with Adam Lambert making a surprise appearance by accompanying them both -- we can't hate on that.

Idol's fate is currently being decided as the network, with Upfronts looming, considers a pick-up for another season. Producers are also looking at budgets moving forward to see whether further cutbacks are needed -- either to the frequency of the show or its production. To all these worries we say: Give Idol another chance. Let the generation that grew up with the show -- and abandoned it -- cycle out. Don't skimp on the set, the performers or the talent search, but $15 million for a judge might not fit in Idol's new world order. Let the new blood have their say -- and their way.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin