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TV 101: How 'American Idol' Screwed Up The Judge Search

by Jay Black, posted Aug 4th 2010 2:00PM
Simon Cowell. He smells like cigarettes and awesome.Sometime in the far future, after the zombie apocalypse and the Seldon-predicted collapse of the empire, historians will look back at this period and try to puzzle out just who Simon Cowell was. A king? A sentient robot? A god?

It'll be hard for them to understand -- did a British guy in a nipple-hugging sweater really have more ink written about him than Lady Gaga and Lindsey Lohan combined?

But it's true: Simon's departure from 'American Idol' and the domino effect it's had on America's favorite show has dominated the news for months. Last week, I followed the reports about the show's judging changes like they were dispatches from the front line of a war.

The thing that's surprised me most about the search to replace Simon (and Ellen ... and Kara) is that no one has suggested the simple fix for the problem: the producers should have let America vote on it.

Simon Cowell is a singular talent. There aren't many people on the planet who can tell the truth and remain likable, let alone do it on TV. Anyone who watches 'American Idol' knows that he's the real star of the show; the kids doing advanced karaoke are just an excuse to hear what Simon is going to say about them.

Let's put it this way: if being the mean judge on a nationally televised talent show was baseball, then Simon Cowell would have a bat with "Wonderboy" carved in it. He's that good.

It makes sense that when the most popular part of America's favorite show decides to leave it makes news. What doesn't make sense is that the 'American Idol' producers have decided that the best way to replace him is to simply shove a big-name star into the slot and hope that they're just as good as Simon.

History shows us that whoever they choose will probably suck. Remember all the copycat shows that followed in the wake of 'AI's success in the early 2000s? Every single one of them attempted a Simon-styled "mean judge" who only served to prove how hard it was to be equal parts honest, real, and likable.

Jennifer Lopez, Steven TylerWhat the 'Idol' producers are doing with the rumored additions of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler is trying to slot stars so big into the Simon role that we'll ignore whether or not they have any skill at judging. Is J-Lo being honest and entertaining? Who cares, she's Jenny from the Block!

The writing is on the wall: 'American Idol' is a season and a half away from cancellation. The only way it could be more obvious is if the new judges were Ted McGinley and the Great Gazoo.

It didn't have to be this way. The producers could have revitalized the show and found a worthy successor to Simon at the same time. All they had to do was follow the philosophy they pay lip service to at the start of every season: they should have done a national talent search for Simon's seat.

Imagine if instead of awkwardly shoving J-Lo into Simon's chair (insert J-Lo big booty joke here), the producers instead put together a rotation of ten wannabe Simons. Make it a mixture of unknowns and celebrities. As they judge the competition, we judge them -- voting each week on who our favorite judges were.

Of course, this could only really work in the pre-taped early rounds, where it'd be possible to insert multiple judges into the mix. Also, the actual mechanics of how it would work would have to be ironed out (by someone smarter than me, obviously).

Regardless of the details of how you'd get it to work, letting us choose the judge would create interest in 'American Idol' again. Further, there's a chance, however slim, that we might be able to find someone just as good as Simon. If that happens, the show recaptures its place as the most important show on TV and gets another five years of cultural relevancy.

The answer to 'American Idol's' problem is so obvious that it forces us to ask why, exactly, it's not letting America decide who the next judge is. The fact that they're not reveals Hollywood's ongoing contempt for the public.

Here's what I mean: the producers know that 'American Idol' was never about the singing. They're smart enough to realize that Simon has been the real star of 'AI' all along. The singing part was arbitrary; you could have made the competition about anything -- dancing, gardening, parkour, cheese-making, or dungeon-mastering -- and people would have watched the show to see what Simon said about it.

(Be honest, if they got rid of the whole singing thing and just had Simon Cowell going around judging random people doing their jobs you'd watch, right? Of course you would.)

Because the singing really doesn't matter, that's what America gets to vote on. Each year, we choose a winner who (more likely than not) will disappear in a cloud of reality-show smoke faster than a cast-off from 'Tool Academy'. And, while we're busy texting in our votes for an irrelevant winner, the producers are in charge of all the important things: the show's format, the hosts, the guest stars, and the judges.

If the producers had any faith in the American people to pick a real American Idol, they'd let us pick the judge.

For as much as 'American Idol' changed TV, it's still a very old-fashioned show. The audience interaction that built the foundation of the show's popularity is a sham: when it comes to the real meat of the show, the producers don't really care what you have to say. Just shut up, sit down, and absorb some awkward Coca-Cola product placement.

It's time for 'American Idol' to actually let America make a real decision. Let us choose the judge! We're more than qualified to root out talent. We found Justin Bieber, didn't we!?

Actually, on second thought ...

(Jay Black is a writer and comedian who really hopes you like this column. For more information about Jay or to check out one of his live shows, visit his website at www.jayblack.tv)

[Follow @jayblackcomedy on Twitter]

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Wow...no one commented on your "Hari Seldon" reference. (That was the reason I read the article, since I don't own a television.) Maybe you should have included a Wikipedia link.

By the way, writer/editor Darrell Schweitzer claims that "The Foundation Trilogy" can only be enjoyed when you're a teenager. To an adult, it's unreadable.

August 06 2010 at 8:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Haha! Great article! Nice to read something from a critic who actually "gets it" about Simon and Idol. Simon WAS the show. Now he's gone, it's a big who cares. As you say, Idol will be toast within two seasons or less. Seriously. When X Factor U.S. gets here, who's going to care about AI anymore? Its' a better show, better format and has SIMON! Yeah.

August 06 2010 at 2:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I do enjoy Idol after the stupid auditions and after the top 8. I would love to pick the judges. J-Lo would be great on the show.

August 05 2010 at 10:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

To me, it isnt about the judges, Simon included. While Simon is obviously a big part of the shows success, its still about the music for me. The horrible quality of the contestants in recent years and the wall to wall, unwatchable nonsense you have to endure,or FF throught, to watch this show is the real reason the show is suffering. The producers of AI can try to distract us with the changing of judges, but the elephant in the room is that the show is awful to watch for the most part, with too much schlock to endure to get to the part that is important, which is the performances and the singers.

August 05 2010 at 5:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have a feeling that Simon's The X Factor will debut in Winter 2012 instead of Fall 2011, taking the slot of what will then be the canceled American Idol.

August 05 2010 at 12:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Simon Judges People, coming to FOX next Fall. I would SOOO watch that show!

August 04 2010 at 9:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's funny, I was ready to reply with why they should NOT have America choose the judge i.e "because they would choose someone like Justin Bieber" but then I read your last line and it seems you answered your own question doesn't it?

What they should've done was actively start looking for judges as soon as it was established that this was Simon's last year. Of course, they could've been doing this all along, but from the looks of it, they didn't start looking until last week. They could've even hyped it up during the finale with Simon passing the baton or something.

But no. Now they're scrambling and making the mess of it. Fantastic.

August 04 2010 at 7:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There is only one person who can out-snide Simon Cowell and remain likable is Ricky Gervais. I would watch it so see the totally inappropriate comments he would hang on these "singers".

August 04 2010 at 4:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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