An “Idol” Exorcise: Expelling the Spirit of Simon

It looks like we're in for a kinder, gentler show. But will the ghost of Cowell haunt the revamped program?

It was one year ago this week that Simon Cowell announced he was leaving "American Idol." And, as with all things Simon, there's no in-between: we'll soon learn whether his departure will prove to be the best or worst thing ever to happen to the show.

In the weeks leading up to Wednesday's 10th season premiere, we've been fed tidbits about format changes (online voting, possible music videos). But this week, the producers and judges signaled a major philosophy shift: get ready for a kinder, gentler "Idol."

"We're not here to break people down, but we're here to guide people through it," Jennifer Lopez, who joins Steven Tyler as a new judge, told reporters.

Randy Jackson, generally a pussycat over the last nine seasons, is positioning himself – by default, it seems – as the tough judge, promising to be "an assertive dawg."

Which says a lot about where the show apparently is headed.

Cowell, who became the scowling face of "American Idol" early on, was at his best with Paula Abdul as his kindly, loopy foil – and with a talented pool of contestants to prod through his often sarcastic, if generally accurate, pronouncements.

The balance got thrown off last year with Abdul's departure and a weak crew of contestants that brought out the worst in short-timer Cowell, who no longer seemed to relish the love-to-hate-him role he created.

The best advertisement for the show always has been the contestants, not the judges. Carrie Underwood, nearly six years later, is still a star. Lee DeWyze, eight months later, is a footnote.

Cowell didn't pick the winners – the public did. But he had much to do with choosing the finalists, and his predilection for clean-cut pop idols singing old music not only earned him the animus of those with more hard-core tastes, but wore thin as it became harder to tell one fresh face from another.

Perhaps the most telling indications about the show’s new direction came in comments from Jimmy Iovine, the program’s new in-house mentor and head of Interscope Geffen A&M Records. He told reporters the goal is find someone who is “going to sing with their own voice rather than sing like someone else, which is not attractive to a record company."

That dovetails nicely with plans to add more coaching in-between shows and release songs by “Idol” finalists during the season, ala “Glee,” helping contestants develop as artists – with download sales potentially serving as a de facto, secondary voting system.

The emphasis on building up talent rather than tearing down young hopefuls for sport appears to be a good long-term strategy for the show. But we’ll see whether the new approach will draw big audiences week to week – and whether a year from now anybody is talking about the next season of "Idol."

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity 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.

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