Why 'American Idol' Reminds Us a Little of 'Survivor'

This Season Tilts More Toward Reality Genre

By Published on .

Judann Pollack
Judann Pollack

If "American Idol" were a packaged-goods brand, it could easily label itself "Now with more drama!"

In reinventing one of the biggest media brands on the planet -- a process rare enough to be watched closely by Ad Age -- 'Idol's' producers are dialing up the drama by throwing the contestants more curve balls. The result: a show tipped further away from talent competition and more firmly toward the reality genre -- that is to say, forcing unreal situations on the would-be Idols.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Hollywood Week's group sessions, universally dreaded by the contestants but loved by viewers because of all its angst. At the last minute, the producers introduced a rule that forced already cozy groups to break up, setting off a mad scramble to re-form that resembled something more like "Amazing Race" than "American Idol."

In the ensuing rush, every commandment was broken -- from worshiping false idols and taking names in vain to coveting your neighbor's singer, stealing and adultery. If time allowed, I'm sure, murder would have come into play.

Hollywood Week on 'American Idol'
Hollywood Week on 'American Idol' Credit: Fox

The "plot" that emerged was so Byzantine that Ryan Seacrest had to keep narrating us through it: the unceremonious dumping of baby-faced 15-year-old Jacee Badeaux from of his group midway through rehearsals, or the shunning of Tiffany Rios, the woman-we-love-to-hate who dissed her fellow contestants by saying she was "sick of watching everyone try to do what I can do" and who, to nobody's surprise, failed to be welcomed by a group. Then there was Ashley Sullivan, who will have a bright future, "Idol" or no "Idol," as a spokeswoman for Valium. Sullivan swung wildly from elation to despair during the entire two hours -- crying hysterically through both emotions -- and in the course of two hours quit the competition, rejoined, was nearly booted and ultimately saved.

After that, viewers should have been given a Valium.

The goal of the "Idol" remake is to bring in younger viewers and ad dollars by incubating (apologies to Lady Gaga) the next pop star, so producers this year lowered the age range to 15. The batch of young kids they found is pretty much Miley-ready, easy to imagine barebacked on the cover of Vanity Fair. ("That girl is 15?" asked my 16-year-old son, who happened to be passing by the living room on the way to his Xbox. "Boy, am I going to the wrong school.")

So far, then, the producers' choices have largely worked. The new judges are great, the focus on the talent is entertaining -- and at times even riveting -- and the survivors so far are pretty good. "This is the best day of my life," bubbled one contestant in the 15- to 16-year-old group dubbed "The Minors," as if she'd had a lot of years to show for it yet. The same thing is true for Season 10 of "Idol": Let's not make a snap decision. There are a lot more weeks to come.

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