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Boring 'American Idol' winners? Show exec blames the audience.

By Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 11:40 PM

PASADENA, CALIF.

The folks behind "American Idol" do not think they bear any responsibility for the fact that, since they started allowing "Idolettes" to perform with instruments, the annual competition has been won by a spate of utterly forgettable, virtually indistinguishable, scruffy-but-safe white guys with big, soulful eyes who stand behind guitars.

Most recently, ninth-season winner Lee DeWyze put out his post-"Idol" debut album, which sold just 39,000 units in its first week - the lowest first-week sales for any "Idol" winner's debut, according to Billboard. For that matter, they were lower than any runner-up's debut, too.

Before DeWyze, the winner was Kris Allen - remember him? Never do we. And before Kris, it was David Cook. Not a Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood in the bunch.

"The audience votes - there's nothing we can do," executive producer Ken Warwick copped-out here during an "Idol" session at Winter Press Tour 2011.

"Our job is to serve up the best, most diverse group of 12 kids, and then the audience [votes], and they vote for whoever they like," added another of the show's exec producers, Cecile Frot-Coutaz.

"The record has to be great. If you make a great record, the public will buy it," chimed in the show's surviving judge, Randy Jackson, in his usual empty-calorie way.

"This is a great springboard out there, but you still have to find a record that works," weighed in the show's host, Ryan Seacrest - after telling critics that he attributes his youthful, retro, Dick Clark-ish appearance to "placenta."

But Jimmy Iovine - head of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, which will record the winner - seemed to get it, so there is hope for the coming season of "Idol."

Iovine is the show's new "in-house" mentor; he said his role is to "help make sure we find an original voice - somebody with originality, rather than singing like someone else, which is not particularly attractive to a record company."

"In the past, they weren't getting the proper help to improve," Iovine said of the show's competitors, while drumming his fingers nervously on the arms of his chair and gazing around impatiently through blue-tinted glasses. We like him already.

The new judges, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and pop singer/dancer/bad actress Jennifer Lopez, lent an I'm Ready for My Close-Up air to the news conference.

When one clearly middle-aged TV critic asked them to pretend he was a contestant who hadn't done a very good job with a song and demonstrate what they would say to him, Lopez rolled her eyes and snapped, "What is the age limit now?"

Lopez, by the way, is herself more than a decade too old to compete on "Idol." She's 41.

"I want to see if I can be real," Tyler said when asked why he is doing the show. "Forty years I've been on the road. . . . God knows I've been judged all my life for what I do."

Tyler said he decided he really wanted to do the show with J-Lo after watching her flick "The Backup Plan." "She was so vulnerable. . . . I thought, 'I want to sit next to that,' " he said.

And now, "I get to sit between her," he said, which drew snickers from the room - not the only time that happened during the news conference.

"Do you have to put Steve on a five-second delay?" one critic asked the panel.

"[Have sex] no!" Tyler shot back.

And what of Jackson, you're wondering. When asked how his role might have changed from the previous nine editions, he explained: "You'll see a little bit more assertive dawg. More hair on the dawg, you will see. Fewer 'yo's.' . . . It's a different kind of panel. My role definitely changes. . . . I think you're gonna like this a lot. You're gonna say, 'Dawg! You were right!' " he concluded.

Yup - still negligible.

One critic wondered whether Fox was concerned that the median age of "Idol" viewers is now in the mid-40s.

"I like to think it's aged with me," Fox's impish reality-TV evil genius Mike Darnell retorted.

"Look, the show is amazing. It's 10 years in. Let's all get perspective. That's bigger than 'M*A*S*H' and 'All in the Family,' " he said of his singing competition, which remains the country's most-watched TV show, though its ratings have eroded noticeably in the past couple of seasons.

"I want to keep the success, keep it fresh, keep it new. If the audience keeps coming at these levels, we'll be thrilled."

"How does it feel to be a Latina on ['American Idol']?" one critic asked J-Lo. The question immediately was entered into the pantheon of Incredibly Stupid Questions Asked Over TV Press Tour History.

"I wouldn't know how it would feel to be anything else," Lopez said, understandably irked. Then she added, cynically, "Yeah, it feels good?"

This press tour has been particularly thick with Stupid Questions. Monday alone produced these gems, from the "Pretty Little Liars" session:

I've never seen your show, but I've heard really good things about it, and Twitter has a question for you. It involves Ezra: Will the affair with Ezra continue or be found out - will there be repercussions?

and:

I wonder if you girls have had any trouble with maybe cyber-stalking?

Anyway, getting back to "Idol," the producers will this season extend Hollywood Week auditions, to cull the field to a smaller group of 20 Idolettes. This, they said, will help viewers get to know the semifinalists better. And those Idolettes, for the first time, will be allowed to perform their own material - gak!

Those are among the changes that have to happen because Simon Cowell has bailed on the show, following in the footsteps of Paula Abdul, Frot-Coutaz said - though not exactly in those words.

"It's important that the show evolve with the change of cast," she said. "Otherwise, you're putting a new cast in somebody else's show."

Feeding on Fox

After suffering through ABC's super-cynical day at Winter Press Tour 2011, TV critics revived the next morning, like drought-parched jonquils in a gentle rain, when the Fox network showed up.

Fox gave them a day jammed with lively face time with the casts and crews of its new and returning TV series. That was unlike ABC, a network whose newish programming chief might tell a good story about the critical role that marketing plays in the success of a new TV show in this fragmented marketplace, but which could not be bothered to hold more than one show Q&A session - this for a room filled with a couple hundred bloggers, reporters, columnists and critics just itching to be part of ABC's marketing effort.

Of course, the Fox executive sessions are always the highlight of any press tour, because they always seem to be knee-deep in disaster - usually something "American Idol"-related.

Last summer's tour, for instance, coincided with Fox's decision to gut the "Idol" judge panel. And during the tour last January, Cowell announced that he was bailing on "Idol" and that he had signed a contract to produce and star in an American version of his "The X Factor" for the network.

And it was during a press tour that "Idol" judge Abdul tweeted that she was walking from the singing competition after a contract dispute.

But when Tuesday rolled around, no disaster had yet befallen Fox executives, unless you count canceling "Lone Star" after just two episodes and killing two of its three fall series. Not exactly a hot autumn.

Would they face a room filled with press who resembled a mountain lion in the foothills of Colorado expecting a jogger - and finding only a saltine?

Fortunately for Fox programming chief Kevin Reilly and entertainment chairman Peter Rice, the press was in a generous mood, willing to meet them halfway.

One blogger asked whether it felt like "a punch to the [genitals]" when their biggest fall launch, the prime-time soap "Lone Star," was DOA.

"It was a drag. It was a real bummer," Rice said, beaming at the critics as if they had just brought him good news from afar. "As much as we like to act like we have a crystal ball and know all along, you're only a few DNA strands away from a hit - between a hit and a failure.

"And that same DNA of being creatively bold yields a 'Glee,' and then the other side of it is, we thought we were taking another really good, bold bet - I appreciate a lot of you responding to it - with a show that unfortunately went the other way on us."

Another critic demanded that he be allowed to ask "a question about the 'F' word," by which he said he meant "Fox, Fringe and Friday." The critic insisted that the two men explain the decision to move the sci-fi series to Friday - a.k.a. Death by Timeslot night - and end the "fear among the fans that somehow the network has given up on" the show.

"I beg you to not write the eulogy prematurely," Reilly replied. "It's a show we're very passionate about. Friday has been a troubled night. . . . It's not a free night for us. We are continually looking for the solution to the night."

Emboldened by how well this was going, the two suits dared to shoot down reports that Fox's new Steven Spielberg orgy of special effects, "Terra Nova," has not had enormous cost overruns.

"It's on budget," Rice said.

"It's the most expensive first-year show we've ever had," he acknowledged, quickly adding: "It's not the most expensive show we have on our air."

A member of the press wanted to know what they thought of other networks trying to develop high school musical series, a la "Glee."

"Do you think that your competitors were kind of stupid to even try? Are they misguided and foolish?" the critic asked.

"They can do whatever they want," Reilly said generously. "I think it's always tough to chase something that's hot, and even if you do a good version of it, you tend to look like a 'me, too.' "

"But are they stupid?" Rice asked Reilly.

"Some of them are," Reilly replied coyly.

"Kevin, can you tell us which of your competitors you believe are stupid?" the critic asked.

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