'American Idol' Anonymous: A Former Finalist (Maybe Winner?) Explains What's Wrong With the Show

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An anonymous former finalist (maybe even a winner) gives his (or is it her?) advice on what's gone wrong and what to do to dam season 11's double-digit drop.

An ex-contestant gives his (or is it her?) advice on what to do to dam season 11's double-digit drop.

This story first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

So American Idol finally fell to second place. It was bound to happen. A decade on top, and it couldn't last forever. But a 50 percent audience decline since 35 million in season five? A drop that steep calls for explanation. I competed on Idol. Made it pretty damn far, too, and like most finalists, I would love nothing more than for the show that made us famous to return to its former glory. Where did it go wrong, and how can Idol get back on track? I have some thoughts ...

Stop Diluting the Marketplace

How do you keep people interested in your show when there are singing competitions airing year-round? Take a break. For Fox to expect that viewers, after tuning in to The X Factor from September to December, would jump into another singing show in January looks like a giant miscalculation. The market is watered down, and perhaps sooner rather than later, all these shows will kill each other off. Now, I've watched The Voice, and I've seen X Factor; both have taken the idea of Idol -- from the production to the formatting to the judges -- and embellished it. Are they rewriting the book on talent contests? Not really, but people are tuning in for the novelty of it. Even I like The Voice with its star judges. You could say it has the "X factor" that Idol needs.

Find an Edge

Viewers don't only want new contestants every year, they want new scenery, new looks, an essence of something hip. Idol, musically and thematically, seems to have geared itself toward an older audience, like when producers chose songs from the '50s as the theme to Hollywood week this season. Not even the setting of Cirque's Le Reve Theater took away the staleness of the format. That said, I've always thought of Idol having a secondary purpose as a sort of music-education hour. With fewer schools able to afford music programs, a lot of kids -- and those in the key demo -- don't understand where the music they're listening to came from and from what it borrows. They probably know Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Otis" but might never have heard of Otis Redding. In that sense, maybe skewing older isn't such a bad thing.

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Bring Back the Mean

The question every Idol contestant gets asked most often: What is Simon Cowell really like? That's because people are generally nice to one another, but when they're mean, an audience -- no matter how big or small -- gets off on it. Mean sells, which is why Cowell remains among the most popular figures on television. And there's also that mentality of "us versus them"; how dare some British bloke go on television and be nasty to our young dreamers? Idol is quintessential American television, and as Americans, we like to fight a common enemy, so maybe it's just a matter of the show finding another mean Brit?

A Little Critique Goes a Long Way

Simon went easy on me for the most part, but when I did get berated, it was no fun. I took his comments with a grain of salt because, while Simon had his own track record, it's not like he discovered Led Zeppelin. You're talking about a guy whose model was based on putting lukewarm singers together and packaging them into big product, then making millions from force-feeding the public into believing they're good acts. He obviously knew the show, and I listened to him in that respect, but it's a lot different when you're taking criticism from a Steven Tyler -- if he were to offer any. And there's the problem: Everybody needs support, but the harsh reality is, if these acts want to be in this business, they're going to have to get a few lashings. To regain credibility, Idol needs critical feedback from the judges and critiques that are spot-on.

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Think Spectacle

There has to be a lot of movement on these shows in order to keep Middle America interested. You need stimulation -- or spectacle. It's one reason Dancing With the Stars is so successful: There's movement across the TV screen at all times. From an Idol perspective, the set hasn't changed that much. There are still those who hide behind an instrument or stand at attention at center stage. Maybe for starters, put the judges in different places. Tommy Lee had an upside-down drum kit; perhaps hang someone by their feet? Or have Randy Jackson swoop in on a flying chair. These are ideas I should probably sell to Fox.