'American Idol' returns March 11: will America even care?

Posted Tuesday, March 6, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his myAJC Radio & TV Talk blog

During the debut episode of "American Idol" on ABC airing this Sunday nearly two years after Fox closed shop, Ryan Seacrest narrates this line: "With its return, a fevered excitement has taken hold of the country."

That's what your English teacher might call hyperbole. At best, the show's return after 15 ground-breaking seasons, could be characterized as a mild murmur.

"I'm not sure people are excited about its return," said Michael Slezak, who used to do an amusing weekly video recap of "Idol" with season six runner-up Melinda Doolittle for TVLine. "I don't know. I'm not feeling it, to quote Randy Jackson."

Unlike shows such as "Will & Grace," "Queer Eye" and "Roseanne,"' which all waited at least a decade before coming back, the "Idol" break was a mere 23 months.

"It would have been better for America to miss it a little first before bringing it back," said MJ Santilli, who created MJs Big Blog in 2006 to exclusively cover "Idol" but has since expanded to other reality shows including "The Voice." "Nobody is nostalgic for 'American Idol' yet."

She is rooting for the show to succeed but is genuinely worried about its fate: “My worst-case scenario is it bombs, it’s completely embarrassing and it goes off the air. That’s it. You can’t keep bringing back a show that fails.”

The producers have chosen to stick with the "Idol' formula rather than revamp the show. Seacrest is back as host. The season will feature the same sequence of auditions, a Hollywood round, semifinals and live eliminations.

But the world has changed. Social media and YouTube have become the favored way for musicians to build their fame quotient, not a reality TV show. Just ask all the superstars created by "The Voice." Or in actuality, ask none of the superstars because that show has done a better job building the careers of coaches Adam Levine and Blake Shelton than any of the winners.

This isn't to take anything away from "Idol," which was the most popular show of the 2000s, a cultural juggernaut through its first 10 seasons. It bestowed to the  world Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood as well as judge Simon Cowell, now on "America's Got Talent."

But in 2012, "The Voice" stole its thunder and the show fell off the pop culture radar, unable to generate even a semi-star since season 11, when Georgia's Phillip Phillips won.

The show's departure in 2016, outside of die-hard fans, was largely met with a sigh and a shoulder shrug.

So why bring it back? ABC is a struggling broadcast network in the Netflix era. And the owners of "Idol" needed the money. They paid multiple millions to draw Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Georgia country star Luke Bryan to the judges' table and bring Seacrest back.

Fred Bronson, a veteran Billboard magazine columnist who appeared on "Idol" several times, got a sneak peak of some of "Idol" during Hollywood week and was impressed with the judges.

"They all have great senses of humor,” he said. “They play off each other and have fun with each other while giving some real serious criticism.”

Bryan, the Georgia country star, took a subtle dig at "The Voice" during the first episode. "It's not about what me, Lionel and Katy are doing," Bryan said. "It's about a star being born."

But the brevity of the 16th season won't make it easy for the up-and-coming singers to build fan bases. The season will be over in a mere 11 weeks with 19 episodes. Back during the "Idol" heyday, Fox would air the show for 19 weeks from January to May, producing more than 40 episodes.

Bronson is filled with hope that the show will find a big enough audience for ABC to keep it around awhile.

“People say it’s coming back too soon,” Bronson said. “I don’t really feel that way. I’m glad to be covering it again.”

Indeed, standards of success are shifting quickly. Fox brought in a new music reality competition show called "The Four" featuring Diddy and DJ Khaled earlier this year. With its gladiator-style atmospherics, the show drew half the audience that "Idol" did in its final season but was still renewed for a second season.

Bronson said the future of this reboot depends heavily on minting bankable, chart-topping stars: "If they don't, I don't think it's going to have a very long second life." He likes that Hollywood Records, home to pop star Demi Lovato, will record the season 16 winner's album. The Disney-affiliated label in the past has built up the careers of Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez.

Bo Bice, a Covington resident and runner up season four behind Underwood when the show was at its peak in 2005, said he knew "Idol" would come back even while performing on the Fox series finale in 2016. He was the first genuine rock guy to excel on the show, paving the way for the likes of Chris Daughtry, David Cook and Lee DeWyze.

"I think the time was right to take a step back from the leaderboard of talent TV shows when Idol did so," said Bice, who is now lead singer of the band Blood, Sweat & Tears. "But it'll always be relevant... I believe the legacy of 'American Idol' will live whether it's still live on TV or not."