The underlying story on "American Idol" this season is the pending departure of Simon Cowell, the acerbic British judge who has been the face of the show since his first withering takedown of a quivering-lipped auditioner eight years ago. Speculation has naturally centered on his replacement, with the implied assumption that the new Simon will play as critical a role as the current one does.
Forget it. There’s no chance his replacement is going to be Howard Stern or any other big name who would seize the spotlight. It's already apparent what "Idol" is going to be once Simon is gone next year: The Ryan Seacrest show.
In fact, we’re already there.
Season nine has seen Ryan surge to center stage, barking at everyone as he prepares to claim the unquestioned alpha-dog status going forward. From his cold-calling on individual judges to the edginess of his banter with Simon to the booking of the show’s live acts, it's all about the host, with the judges and (on Wednesdays) the contestants playing a secondary role.
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Longtime “Idol” watchers have noticed that there’s something ... off this year. Ellen DeGeneres has taken some of the blame for that because she’s new, and Simon gets some flack for being less engaged, but that’s not quite it. The contestants have also been dinged for being less capable than in years past, but the voices this year are fine — they just suffer in comparison to the crazy showmanship that Adam Lambert showed a season ago.
The real difference is that “Idol” is now focused on its host rather than the judges. (The contestants have always existed to be the foil for both.)
Previous seasons have seen Ryan play more of a straight man, the face and voice of the audience but with better hair and makeup. He’s asked the questions we’d like to ask, such as “What in the heck is a contestant supposed to do when the judges are telling them different things every week,” while the judges have acted like miniature popes who dispense wisdom from up on high.
It’s a different dynamic this year as Ryan has inserted himself into the story lines more often and has added more bite to his commentary. The Ryan-Simon sniping has always been an act, but notice how Ryan's become more aggressive this season (to the point of meanness in his gibe at former co-host Brian Dunkleman last week)? He's not just the facilitator anymore, but also an actor.
That’s one of several changes this season in what appears to be a conscious effort to get the show younger and hipper — where Ryan makes his living on the radio — instead of relying on industry veterans as in the past.
It all started with the guest judges at the auditions. We saw Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne and Joe Jonas showing up to be seen as much as to give feedback (especially in the case of Jonas, who, based on the aired footage, just sat there like a statue). Also appearing was Kristin Chenoweth, an entertainment legend but someone the “Idol” audience knows from her stint as a guest on “Glee.”
There was no Olivia Newton John this season. The most veteran performer among the guests was Shania Twain, and I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell her that she’s past her prime, as the emphasis was on current commercial appeal rather than overall resume.
Though the judges then took center stage in Hollywood, thanks to the addition of Ellen and the fuss over Simon’s pending departure, they haven’t made much news since the live shows began. Ryan has. Whether it’s a deliberate choice by 19 Entertainment and Fox or just an entertainer with the keen insight to strike while the iron is hot, he’s been focus of attention.
Most likely, it’s a combination of both. “Idol” has clearly decided to get more current — “commercial” has been the buzzword of the season — and that’s right in Ryan’s wheelhouse. He has a radio show syndicated to millions of people every day that highlights the up-and-coming artists, so why not use the TV show to do the same thing for those artists as well as this year’s contestants? In fact, if you want to guess who’s going to be the next “Idol” mentor or the most likely acts to appear on the results shows, you could do worse than listen to the most-played artists on his radio show.
Look at the mentors we've seen so far: Miley Cyrus, Usher, Adam Lambert. No creaky old acts like Rod Stewart or Barry Manilow here. The latter might be the more traditional mentors in a "tell me about the old days, grandpa" kind of way, but the kids don't know, don't care and can change channels or fast-forward through the DVR.
Meanwhile, the live acts have come in two categories: former “Idol” contestants (essential to giving the show its aura of importance; it has to create stars and superstars, or it's just a musical "America's Next Top Model"), and young, hip acts. We've seen Ke$ha; Orianthi; Miley Cyrus; Joe Jonas and Demi Lovato; Diddy; Usher and will.i.am; Jason Derulo; and Rhianna. Apart from Diddy, Usher and will.i.am, all of them are young enough to be eligible to compete on "Idol" themselves.
This isn't a show that's meant to appeal to all demographics anymore. There’s no “Rod Stewart sings the standards” week, and (thankfully) no Broadway show tunes. That's why "Dancing With the Stars" is taking some of the "Idol" audience share — it's the older viewers whom “Idol” has stopped trying to win and doesn't much care about.
It all makes perfect sense, for Ryan personally and for “Idol” as a whole. For the host, it’s the ultimate in cross-platform entertainment: The artists can perform their newest singles and plug their concert tours on “Idol” on Wednesday, and come back for more on his radio show Thursday. He helps them, and they help him. Win-win.
As for the show, emphasizing Ryan eases the pain of losing Simon and decreases the pressure of finding a replacement. If you’re looking for a body rather than a star, there are a lot more options to choose from and the cost of failure isn’t as high. That’s why nobody should be surprised when the show announces Simon will be replaced by someone unlikely to have his unique skill set.
With Ryan in charge, that doesn’t really matter anyway.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/craigberman.