'Idol' Math: 2 Judges + 2 Judges = A Big Fat Zero

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, April 17, 2009

Allowing "American Idol" star Simon Cowell to critique only half the show's competitors will go down in the history books as the dumbest idea ever hatched to "tweak" the most watched television show in the country.

It will also go down in the books as the shortest-lived on-air tweak.

One episode.

Although next week there will be as many Idolettes performing at this week because the judges vetoed viewers' decision to eliminate competitor Matt Giraud, Fox is dumping the new judging system it introduced Tuesday as a time-saving device, in which the four judges were divided into two teams and took turns critiquing every other competitor.

Viewers hated it, and said so in the network's "Idol" chat forums.

Instead, the show will now attempt to cut out some of the "other stuff" that does so much to plump up the running time. You know, like this past Tuesday's "Quentin Tarantino: Legend -- Seriously" package that contributed so mightily to the gobbling-up of a precious seven minutes of the performance show before the first Idolette sung a single note.

The late new judging system was initiated this week in response to the previous week's nightmare, in which the Tuesday performance show ran a whopping nine minutes long.

That overrun meant the final competitor's performance was not seen by a hefty chunk of viewers who had DVR'd the broadcast (Nielsen estimates more than 3 million people are DVR-ing "Idol" this season). This is not a good thing for a TV competition series that calls for viewers to do the voting. In addition to the viewers, from whom Fox heard in substantial numbers, the network also got an earful from the folks who run the network's TV stations across the country. Because the nine-minute "Idol" overrun resulted in a seven-minute "Fringe" overrun, which caused their local newscasts to start and end late, which can affect ratings.

Fox issued a statement the next day in which it revealed that "American Idol" is a live performance show and, as such, has "unpredictable elements" that affect running time.

By "unpredictable elements," Fox means no one involved with the show is capable of doing simple math, and was unaware that if you don't cut anything out of a show and you then add a fourth judge who typically gives about 30 seconds of remarks on each Idolette's performance -- plus you're airing the tightest performance show of the season, in which you are trying to jam eight Idolettes into a one-hour broadcast -- that equals Major Time Overrun.

Of course, it also doesn't help that the show's two chick judges seem to be trying to outtalk each other throughout the night.

When the new judging system was unveiled Tuesday, by show host Ryan Seacrest, he called it "historic," as in:

"Tonight is kind of an historic evening, wouldn't you say, Simon?"

Cowell went with "unfortunate" instead:

"Because of the girls talking too much last week . . . we overran, so I apologize to our viewers who want to watch whatever else follows this," he said. "Tonight we have to talk two at a time . . . so unfortunately, some contestants I won't be judging."

"But I do want to clear this up, because there were some complaints -- it was the girls' fault?" Seacrest asked, to clarify.

"One hundred percent yes," Cowell shot back.

(Hilariously, immediately after Cowell and Seacrest explained the new timesaving judging system, Seacrest introduced that mind-numbing "Quentin Tarantino: Legend -- Seriously" package.)

And, despite the fact that they cut the number of comments after each performance from four to two, this week's performance show wound up with a nearly four-minute overrun.

This week also marked the historic first-ever use of the highly hyped "American Idol" Judges' Save, in which the judges now get to veto the viewers' vote, once each season. The judges threw down that card to save Karaoke Justin Timberlake Lite, a.k.a. Matt Giraud.

This means there will be seven Idolettes singing again next week, and all the live-show timing issues that go with it. But next Tuesday, when Seacrest tells viewers the week's theme is "disco," it will not be followed by a prerecorded history of disco music through the ages. Instead, the show will move into the performances more quickly and all four judges will respond to all seven performances.

Although Seacrest called it "historic," industry insiders suggested the 2+2 judging plan was concocted to appease affiliates and was only going to happen one week. Which prompts the question: Is this any way to run the biggest franchise in the country's TV firmament? Because, despite the network's and the producers' best efforts to mess around with the singing competition this season, "Idol" these days is actually attracting more viewers than on comparable nights one year ago. This past Wednesday, the show clocked more than 24 million viewers -- nearly as many viewers as CBS, ABC and NBC combined in the 9 o'clock hour.

Or, if you prefer, more viewers in that hour than the combined audiences of these cable networks: Fox News Channel, Sci Fi, USA, Disney, Discovery, TBS, TNT, Nick at Nite, Cartoon Network, A&E, CNN, ESPN and Tru.

The abandonment of the 2+2 judging system can't help but calm viewers, who savaged the system in Fox's "Idol" chat forums and blamed the change on this year's addition of fourth judge Kara DioGuardi:

"I'm so mad about last night's episode. . . . Besides the singing, my other favorite aspect of the show is hearing SIMON'S critiques after EVERY performance," wrote one viewer.

"Last night we only heard him every other time -- what a total crock!!!! What has happened to this show?!?! The three-judge format worked perfectly. I liked hearing from them ALL, but especially SIMON. Last night didn't have the same excitement AT ALL. Get rid of Kara and let all the judges speak. A horrible, horrible episode. I hope they change it next week. We need the old 'Idol family' back -- as dysfunctional as it was!"

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