"American Idol" is billed as a music talent show, but it's ultimately an exercise in pop-culture democracy. The viewers who still care – about the show, and not necessarily about their phone bills – can vote, if not early, then often for two hours after the program.
“Idol” has proven phenomenally successful, at least during its first eight seasons, in engaging a mass audience by making viewers an integral part of the action.
The Fox show, in a smart move, is going to the people again as the producers try to figure out what's gone wrong this season, perhaps the weakest yet. A survey posted recently on the “Idol” website asks more than two dozen questions – many clearly aimed at rooting out dissatisfaction with the judges.
The poll offers viewers choices, variously, to check off or agree or disagree with statements like, “I do not like Ellen DeGeneres on the show” and “I would like Paula (Abdul) to return as a permanent judge next season.”
Viewers also are asked to rank the guest judges who appeared during contestant tryouts before DeGeneres joined the show – among them Victoria Beckham, Kristin Chenoweth and Mary J. Blige.
Though the show remains TV's No. 1 program, the ratings are down, making the judges’ panel a natural target.
To be sure, Simon Cowell's bitter last stand has bred tiresome bickering with host Ryan Seacrest. New judge Ellen DeGeneres can be entertaining at times, but hasn't quite found her rhythm with Cowell still commanding the spotlight. Kara DioGuardi and Randy Jackson speak in their own sometimes obtuse patter that doesn't carry the charm of Abdul's mélange of unabashed gushing and loopy non-sequiturs.
But the judges aren’t the show’s biggest problem. This season’s focus on the panelists, the major changes aside, is primarily a product of filling the entertainment void left by a mediocre contestant lineup.
Rocker Crystal Bowersox is the best of the final four, and hopefully will emerge as the winner, though she probably would be no better than a Top 5 contender in most seasons. The other three left are likeable and reasonably talented, but are Top 12 material at best, compared to past years.
The online survey addresses the performance problem – “The talent is worse” is one check-off option. But most of the queries are about the show's format – more or less of the mentors? Favorite theme nights? – and, of course, the judges.
It’s unclear whether the information gathered will lead to any major changes. It’s also unknown whether the survey results, like the weekly votes on contestants, will be made public.
But we could be headed to the ultimate example of "American Idol" democracy in action: the audience could wind up voting judges off the show.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.