TV 101: 'American Idol' and the TV Truth Gap

by Jay Black, posted Feb 17th 2010 11:05AM
Simon CowellCalm down, Grandma: Howard Stern won't be replacing Simon Cowell on 'American Idol'. Like every other inspired Hollywood idea, I'm sure someone in a $500 vintage t-shirt is having one of his interns draft a memo to kill it right now.

The controversy surrounding the rumor that Stern might be replacing Simon wasn't shocking: denouncing Stern as a politically incorrect vulgarian is one of the few things liberals and conservatives can still do together. (It was actually kind of fun seeing them agree on something, like when an elderly couple holds hands).

The more interesting thing about the Stern rumor is what it reveals about our TV landscape. Because the next logical question is this:

If not Stern, then who?

Stern wasn't just an inspired choice, he was the only choice.

Most people condemn Stern for being a one-trick pony - he's crude, and that's it. It's true that his language is coarse and his interest is focused on the fluid-producing regions of our bodies, but I don't believe it's because he's a creep. Stern acts the way he does because he has a pathological commitment to telling the truth, and the truth is that guys are creepy. (Note: any guy telling you differently is trying to sleep with you).

Stern goes into the gutter because that's where the truth is.

People misunderstand Simon the same way they misunderstand Stern. The most glaring misconception about Simon's popularity is that he's "the mean judge". This is what the lesser copies of 'American Idol' always get wrong. They've misunderstood the 'American Idol' dynamic as: one mean judge, one nice judge, and one black judge who says "dawg" a lot.

The root of Simon's popularity has nothing to do with being mean. If all it took to be successful in Simon's chair was meanness, you could fill his role with any popular middle school girl and be done with it. What makes Simon a singular talent, and what makes us keep tuning in week after week isn't because he attacks the contestants - it's because he's honest with them.

Simon's commitment to the truth isn't just refreshing; it's so unique that he (and he alone) has turned a cheesy karaoke contest into the most popular television program in the entire world.

You might think that honesty isn't necessarily a talent, but consider this: how many times has Simon said exactly what you're thinking about a contestant, followed by you saying "I can't believe he said that!" If everyone was thinking it, then why can't you believe he said it?

A more important question is economic in nature. If there's so much money to be made in simply saying what's on your mind, why isn't everyone doing it? The answer to both of these questions is simple: we're trained from infancy that it's rude to say what's on our mind, even if the person needs to hear the truth.

Think about it; half of the people who kill our ears during the audition round would have been saved the embarrassment if just one of their friends had told them how badly they sucked. We usually call those poor souls "self-deluded", but that's not accurate; their friends and family all played an important part in deluding them.

Social convention makes it really, really hard to tell someone the truth, even in private. When the stakes are raised to 30 million people and one semi-intelligent robot named Ryan Seacrest, it becomes almost impossible to do it.

We're so used to people on TV lying to us that whenever even a tiny bit of truth squeaks out, it becomes national news. That's what made the Leno/O'Brien battle so much fun. It wasn't that America was suddenly interested in NBC non-compete clauses; we were reveling in two major TV personalities actually letting a little real personality out on TV.

The 'American Idol' producers know they have a problem on their hands: honesty is at the heart of their popularity and the one guy who is actually able to be honest is leaving them next season.

Who can they get to fill Simon's shoes? First, let's eliminate the people who can't do it:

1. The current judges.

They're famous, they're good at what they do, and they're completely dependent on Simon. Not a chance they can fill that chair.

2. Any current or former reality judge from another show.

They're all bad imitations of Simon. Also, I'm pretty sure that Janice Dickerson has finally melted.

3. Any political commentator who has a reputation for telling "the truth."

For the love of all that's good and natural, don't get political in the comments. All I mean is that if you have a favorite political commentator, he's not telling you the truth so much as the truth as you wish it were. That's why he has a job. Sorry.

4. No comedians.

Believe me, I'm a comic. The joke always wins. We're about as committed to the truth as we are to personal hygiene.

5. Nobody who has lived in L.A. for longer than six months.

L.A. is a town that expresses hate for something by saying "I didn't love it." Honesty is a curse word to these people.

Who does that leave us with? Seriously, who can actually step up and say what's on his or her mind for 60 minutes a week, four months a year?

There are exactly four people who tell the truth regardless of the consequences: Tony Kornheiser, Charles Barkley, Rosie O'Donnell, and Howard Stern.

That's it. Those are the only four people in America that I've seen tell the truth on a consistent basis while still being in the public eye.

Kornheiser's out because not enough people know him. Barkley's out because 'American Idol' has a puritanical commitment to clean living and Barkley was recently arrested for drinking and driving on his way to get an OjobBlay. O'Donnell is out because if you thought the hubbub around Stern was bad, wait until you see what happens when you attach "Outspoken Lesbian Liberal" to the choice. My Uncle Nick's head might actually explode.

So, back to the question at hand: If not Stern then who?

By my calculations ... no one.

(Jay Black is a writer and a comic who really hopes you enjoyed the column. You can follow him on twitter at

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I like Simon ALOT. He tells you the truth and people do not like to hear that sometimes. He knows what he is talking about and when you get a good comment from know you are good, because he is honest and right upfront with people. I will miss him. I don't think American Idol will get the high ratings after he leaves. After all...look who replaced Paula. Ellen know NOTHING about music...and I don't think it is fair to any of the singers to have her as a judge. They surley could of done much better. I am disappointed that they chose her to join the judging panel.

March 01 2010 at 11:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think they should replace him with Judge Judy. I would keep watching.

February 18 2010 at 10:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A very good article, thoughtful and well written. The one quibble I have with it is your passing off Howard Sterns vugarity as his "pathological commitment to telling the truth". Stern is an obviously intelligent and articulate person who chooses to obsessively dwell on subjects that are more appropriate to the maturity level of Jr. High school boys. To me, this is not a matter of Stern being honest, it is a matter of him being perpetually juvenile. Obviously, he has been wildly successful because of it, so there must be a substantial audience who appreciate this sort of entertainment. There is nothing wrong with that either, so more power to Stern and his audience. However, lets not try to dress up crude, vulgar, gutter humor as a glorified form of honesty.
Lastly, I want to repeat something that I mentioned on another AI post. I think the importance of the judges on AI is overrated. To me, and probably to a whole bunch of other people, the attraction of this show is the music. That is the most important thing, the judges are basically window dressing. AI became the biggest show on tv with Randys' virtually content free, slang intensive commentary, Paulas' unintelligable gibberish and Simons' cantankerous truth telling. While I agree that Simons' opinion is the only one that really matters, I think that even his impact on the show is overstated.

February 18 2010 at 9:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I still say Cyndi Lauper. She would have been ideal to replace Paula. I still think she would be great.

February 18 2010 at 12:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"1 mean judge, 1 nice judge, and 1 black judge who says dawg a lot" lmfao

February 17 2010 at 11:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

we r in an economic crisis and simon cowell is making 22,000 a minute on american idol. you have to be kidding me i can do a better job than him for $20 a min. he needs to be shipped back to england. he didnt make the show big the person who invented it made it big he is just honest to the contestants. i will not watch american idol anymore and watch that british bumb wear the same clothes everyday.

February 17 2010 at 10:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I might as well say it now: Ann Wilson of Heart is my choice to replace Simon Cowell on Idol (and she was my personal choice to replace Paula until Ellen DeGeneres got the job). It'd give Heart a boatload of new fans, and since Ann rarely sugarcoats ANYTHING, it will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out.


February 17 2010 at 6:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

After seeing him at the Dallas auditions, I would love for it to be NPH. He showed a level of honesty and willingness to talk that you don't see from the celebrity judges. He didn't mind telling somebody they sucked either. Plus, he has enough the charisma and personality to fill Simon's chair IMO.

February 17 2010 at 3:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Dr. Drew? He's already a "tv personality" that the core audience of this show is familiar with. He's clean-cut and handsome enough that my mother would watch him, and he's certainly not going to sugar coat anything.

Of course, we may end up watching a lot of therapy... "No, honey, that wasn't good. Were you raised in an abusive home?"

February 17 2010 at 2:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Let's be honest, American Idol won't explicitly remain number one in ratings once Simon leaves. I guarantee his role on the American "X Factor" is going to split the audience--at least for a little while.

That said, Idol will only be as good as any other talent show. And if that's the case, I don't see why they can't leave it with a rotating special guest judge spot for auditions, like they do on So You think You Can Dance, and then keep it to 3 judges--Randy, Kara, and Ellen--like they did for the first seven seasons of Idol.

February 17 2010 at 1:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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