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ABC Goes Back to Basics to Revive ‘American Idol’
May 9, 2017  | By Alex Strachan
 

Hindsight is 20/20 — pun intended in this case since we’re talking about ABC.

The Alphabet network’s decision to revive American Idol is both timely and, in this correspondent’s opinion, shrewd.

Idol’s biggest calling card was always hope, and we’re living in times that are crying out for hope in a way not seen since the days after 9/11.

It’s easy to forget now, but American Idol owed much of its early success to the malaise that gripped America in the year following 9/11.

Idol premiered in June 2002, just nine months after the Twin Towers fell, and hardly anyone gave it a prayer.

The similarly themed Making the Band had already proved a dud — on ABC, no less — and Elisabeth Murdoch, living in the UK at the time, where Pop Idol had become a mainstream hit, had to talk her father, Rupert Murdoch, into giving an Americanized Idol a chance on the Fox network. Even at that, Murdoch was reluctant — Fox executives were doubtful, as veteran New York Times media writer Bill Carter recounted in his book Desperate Networks — but this one time Murdoch chose his daughter’s opinion over that of his advisors.

True, Idol fell on hard times in its later years, ratings-wise, but the basic idea remained: A young hopeful, chosen from thousands, would step into the TV spotlight and, perhaps, just perhaps, a star would be born.

For all The Voice’s (left) entertainment value — and it is entertaining — it has yet to produce a star, not the way Idol did, and more than once.

Idol stumbled in its later years because of the competition, not just The Voice but a proliferation of talent shows that, inevitably, diluted the available talent. Idol seemed stuck in a straitjacket — this week, a salute to the Bee Gees; next week, “songs from the year they were born” — and viewers defected en masse.

American Idol last aired a live show little more than a year ago, on April 5, 2016. That’s practically yesterday in TV terms, but a lot has changed in those 12 months — and not just a new presidential administration topped by a one-time reality-TV headliner. The malaise is back, despite the commander-in-chief’s protestations about “fake news” outlets deliberately misreporting the news and getting their facts wrong. Street protests and demonstrations on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War are now a regular, almost weekly, occurrence. Saturday Night Live is raking in record numbers. The time seems right for a throwback to the days of American Bandstand and Laugh-In.

And, for whatever reason, The Voice is not up to the job. Perhaps it’s the uncomfortable reality that, even now, The Voice has yet to find a Phillip Phillips, let alone a Carrie Underwood (right) or Kelly Clarkson. Perhaps it’s the way the adolescent banter between Adam Levine and Blake Shelton has been allowed to take over the entire show, at times. Perhaps it’s the way The Voice seems all-too-often to be more about the celebrity coaches than the contestants. Too often, it’s not so much which contestant wins The Voice that counts, but rather which coach has racked up the most wins overall.

Ryan Seacrest may turn down a chance to host a revived Idol — he’s just been handed a permanent hosting spot on Live with Kelly and Ryan and has said he doesn’t know if he could handle both jobs at the same time, despite his hard-earned rep for being a workhorse. Idol was never about its host, though. It was always about finding the next Jennifer Hudson (below right) or Chris Daughtry.

The decision to put Idol to pasture was always a curiosity to those who look at the big picture, rather than simply focusing on this year’s ratings. I said as much at the time; onetime New York Daily News media writer David Hinckley, of this parish, wrote as much on TVWW just days after Fox made its announcement.

Fox’s choice to retire Idol and replace it with misfires like Minority Report, Lucifer, The Exorcist, Scream Queens, Rosewood, and Pitch was hardly enhanced by its later decision to revive shorter, limited-series versions of old reliables like 24, Prison Break and The X-Files. It now looks as if Fox executives realize the tried-and-true is bankable after all if the alternative is taking a flyer on APB and Houdini & Doyle. Can a shortened, limited series revival of Bones be far behind?

ABC already has reality-TV standbys in Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor, but Idol is something altogether different. Dancing — the clue is in the name —revolves around celebrities who’ve already become stars of a kind. The Bachelor, however you choose to define it, is not a talent show in any sense of the word. American Idol, while hardly an outlier on Fox, has in a way come home on ABC, one of the original Big Three networks, and the only one with the word “American” in its name.

ABC is also where Dick Clark made his name, not just with American Bandstand but with New Year’s Rockin’ Eve where — lest we forget — Ryan Seacrest took on co-hosting duties after Clark suffered a stroke in 2004. Seacrest became the sole host following Clark’s passing in 2012.

Passing Idol’s torch on to ABC makes perfect sense, from a business point-of-view.

There’s also a more personal, visceral point-of-view, though. This has been an unsettling, at times unnerving spring, both on TV and in the real world. If my household is anything to go by, American Idol has been sorely missed.

So good on ABC for bringing it back.

 
 
 
 
 
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Good news, TVWW readers: David’s new book from Doubleday, The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific is available on Amazon for $20. (Paperback will be available September 5th, here.)

Doubleday says: “Darwin had his theory of evolution, and David Bianculli has his. Bianculli's theory has to do with the concept of quality television: what it is and, crucially, how it got that way."

"The Platinum Age of Television is an effusive guidebook that plots the path from the 1950s’ Golden Age to today’s era of quality TV. For instance, animation evolved from Rocky and His Friends to South Park; variety shows moved from The Ed Sullivan Show to Saturday Night Live; and family sitcoms grew from I Love Lucy to Modern Family. A high point is the author’s interviews with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Matt Groening, Larry David, Amy Schumer and many others...Bianculli has written a highly readable history." —The Washington Post

 

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