Last time, I promised I would talk about why the current setup for American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) will actually hurt the show in the long run. When you look at AI and SYTYCD as a kind of modern-day sports program, you can begin to see why these shows are successful. We latch on to a person or two, cheer for them, feel the drama when they blow it, and actually have an impact on the outcome. In sports, fans love to believe that they can change the way a game goes. Very rarely is this true, but it can happen. This past year's Golden State/Dallas NBA matchup showed a group of fans who did change the series. I remember going to one UCF football game where the fans got so insane the other team got a penalty and ended up without a score on that drive - which cost them the game. But, honestly, we only affected a few plays. In these shows, you determine the winners ever week.
However, one of the most overlooked elements of sports is the need for a villain. You need to have someone to cheer against. It is hard to get into a game when you don't care who wins. But, if you really loathe some teams, it multiplies the number of games you have an interest in. You can watch a game to cheer for your favorites OR to cheer against your villains. The same has been true in AI and SYTYCD. The success has been as much in the favorites as in the villains. In AI, for example, this has been very obvious. In Season One, it was Nikki, whose 3rd place finish majorly irritated "true fans" of the show. The much superior Tamayra was voted out in the 4th position; Nikki largely advanced on her appeal to guys. In Season Two, there were several obnoxious characters (Carmen, Matt). But the true example was actually Clay Aiken himself. There were a ton of people who loved Clay (my wife), and a ton of people who couldn't stand him (me). That was what made that season work all the way to the end.
Season Three brought us the tone-deaf Jasmine Trias, who finished third largely due to huge vote totals from the West Coast and Hawaii. Season Four gave us Vonzell Solomon who made it to thrid place. But, again, the finale featured a villain in the person of Bo Bice - who a huge number of older viewers hated. Season Five was one of the examples of this process breaking down. The best singers finished 3rd (Elliot) and 4th (Chris). However, the finale had some interest for people because a lot of people (me included) couldn't stand Taylor Hicks. But the series began to show some cracks when the top four all were pretty appealing. When that happens, it is like a game where you like both teams. It really doesn't matter who wins. You know any of the four will put out a good album - which has been proven. Chris Daughtry has a triple-platinum album, Elliot has a critically acclaimed one. Katherine and Taylor both put out albums that sold around 1 million copies each. Katherine's biggest victory may come in crossing over to movies. All four were viable options, somewhat likeable, and talented. There was no tension.
Then you come to this year. There were two villains - Hayley and Sanjaya (three if you count Antonella in the semifinals). In the case of Sanjaya, he was the biggest villain ever on AI. He couldn't sing; he was arrogant; he was weird. But the ratings were huge - until he got booted. Then they dropped off bad. Why? Everyone said this was the strongest crop of singers ever. And that is the exact reason. Once Sanjaya and Hayley got booted in slots 7 and 8, there was no drama. Honestly, if anyone else won, we knew that they would be successful. The top six all were good. So, who cares who wins? I know that I didn't care (as long as Chris Richardson didn't win). AI itself recognized this and did something they never had before. Every year they release a "best of AI" album - with one song per competitor. They did that this year, but they went much farther as well. They also released a Collector's Edition - with studio versions of 76 songs. There are ten songs by Jordin, Blake, and Melinda. Nine songs by Lakisha, eight by Chris R, and so on. Almost every song that was performed on the show made it on the album.
You know who the big winners were on that? Not the top two. The album proved that all of them would make for a great recording artist. In fact, the two stars of the record are Lakisha and Phil - who sound darn good in the studio. After that, Gina is probably the next best. Powerhouses Jordin and Melinda actually suffer because they come off as a bit boring, since they sound exactly the same and get old fast. Blake actually takes a hit because some of his biggest hits from the show get watered down on the album. This record is one of the greatest pieces of evidence that the show is in trouble. Everyone is good. Most of them are polished. As the show has proven itself as a legitimate star-maker, it has lost some of that "it could be the guy next door" element. Just like in real sports, we can't relate to these people any more. This year, Brandon and Melinda were background singers. Chris S was a worship leader and already had recorded an album. Phil was a member of the Navy Rock Band - one of the hardest groups to get into in the military. Jordin had won a Junior Idol competition in Arizona. Gina had tried out other years and performed in local venues in between. Most of the people have already polished their image; some already had stylists and handlers. Last year, both Taylor and Chris already had released failed albums.
When every person is equal, it is frustrating every week to watch them get tossed in the bottom three and voted off. It isn't about talent at that point - it is always about who dials the most and the fastest. That is exactly how Jordin and Blake beat Melinda and Lakisha. Even though the two divas had bigger fan bases from the very start, their fans were not the type who speed dialed a hundred times. (They are, however, the type who buys albums.) What happens next year, when this will probably lead to there being absolutely NO villains in the final 12? We can get a glimpse of that in SYTYCD this year. Even though this is only the third year for the show, it is going through the process faster - probably due to the pedigree of the producers. Last year, the only year I watched, there were people to root against. The biggest was Dmitri, the Russian heartthrob who always found a way to take off his shirt. I wanted to climb through the tv and choke him. This year, all 20 finalists are excellent and personable and good looking. There is no one to root against - no weak spot, no arrogant turd. Even the people the show has tried to cast as villains have turned out to be nice - actually they have been the most delightful of them all (Danny, Dominic). The only thing that even closely resembles a villain is Cedric - just because he already lost one partner. But his solo dancing is so freaky and amazing, you can't hate him. And he is a genuinely sweet kid - even when getting shredded by the judges.
So, in just the second week of voting, the judges themselves admitted only one pair deserved to be in the Bottom Three. If the judges feel that way, think about the viewers. Every week is a frustration because good quality dancers get stuck in the bottom. This is compounded by the fact that they have to do choreography designed by someone else - and only have control over executing it. We have already seen where the choreographers bizarre vision has cost a pair - even though they danced his weirdness flawlessly (Pasha and Terri come to mind).
There has to be a villain. These shows have tried to cast a judge as villain - Simon on AI and Nigel on SYTYCD. The problem is that both guys are actually immensely likeable and funny. AND they are always right. Educated viewers know this. So how can you hate that? And how successful is a show going to be where you only have the judges to root against? Well, how well would a sport do when the only person you could hate were the refs? Hating the refs is a bad sign. That means they are incompetent or corrupt. I'm not sure exactly how to fix this. You can't force the shows to include punks on their rosters. Even if you did, they would do a 180 if they realized they were the "heel" of the show. However, if this doesn't change, fully expect both shows to continue to see a drop off in viewers. It is just the nature of sports.