Much ado has been made about "American Idol's" alarming ratings slump this year--last Thursday, the show sank to an all-time ratings low in its dozen seasons--and many naysayers and haters are claiming that controversial judge Nicki Minaj is the reason for "Idol's" decline. But while it's true that Nicki, who with her wigs and sassy backtalk sometimes seems more suited for the judging panel of "RuPaul's Drag Race," has undoubtedly alienated "Idol's" most conservative viewers, I think it's unfair to lay all the blame on her. No one judge can be held responsible for a show's success or failure--note that in an age of singing-competition fatigue, not even superstars Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson were enough to respectively help "The X Factor" or "Duets." And after all, it could just as easily be assumed that Nicki brought a new audience of diehard "Barbz" to "Idol," or that fellow new judges Mariah Carey and Keith Urban drew in additional viewers, to compensate for any supposed Minaj-instigated audience exodus this year.
No, there's a different sort of exodus going on here, and I think it's the real main reason for "Idol's" ratings plummet. It's the mass exodus of the type of contestants that have pleased the show's core fanbase since at least Season 7: cute boys with guitars. There, I said it.
It's no secret that the "Idol" powers-that-be have been desperate to finally crown a female winner after a five-season estrogen drought. And who can blame them? I've personally never been against that cause; I too whined in protest when Lee DeWyze beat Crystal Bowersox in Season 9, or when worthy girls like Haley Reinhart and Allison Iraheta didn't make it to their seasons' finales. However, the transparent way in which "Idol" honchos have gone about trying to orchestrate their desired outcome in Season 12 has been all wrong, a very baby/bathwater scenario. And it very well may have ramifications for "Idol" next season--if there is a next season--and beyond.
Basically, this year "Idol" producers obviously stacked the girls' category with incredibly stellar singers, and the guys with not-so-stellar contenders, or at least not with male contenders who play rock, country, and/or guitars (i.e., the type of men who usually get the votes). And so far, this plan has worked out just as "Idol" hoped: The first three contestants to be voted out of the top 10 have been male, and of the seven contestants who remain in the game, five of them are girls. And the last two men standing, Lazaro Arbos and Burnell Taylor, definitely have targets on their backs right now. Lazaro is widely considered to be the weakest overall singer left on the show. Burnell, while talented and unique, isn't the type of contestant who usually wins (you have to go all the way back to Season 2 to find a time when a male old-school R&B singer won the "Idol" title, or was even in the finale). And both Lazaro and Burnell were in the bottom two last week. Nicki herself has gone on record saying there's "no chance a boy will win this year" and "the girls are just too good." So it's quite plausible that in just a couple of weeks, the show will have an unprecedented all-female top five.
Okay, so "Idol" will get its longed-for (and some might argue long-overdue) female winner this year. But congratulations are not quite in order. Because while Season 12 may be left with five very gifted girls, it's also left with a measly 2.7 million viewers in the all-important age 18-49 demographic (compare that to "The Voice's" 4.8 million). And I'd reckon that many of the 18-to-49-year-olds who have recently abandoned "Idol" are normally active, invested, female viewers (or just rock fans in general) who are disappointed that they don't have a guitar-slinging Phillip Phillips or David Cook type to root for this year. If only "Idol" had let rugged firefighter Dustin Lynch, folk/blues troubadour David Oliver Willis, hard-rocker Gabe Brown, or even Nicki's number-one crush Griffin Petersen squeak through, the show's numbers might be higher right about now. A girl may very well have won anyway, since this year's crop of female talent is mighty strong--but more viewers might've stuck around in the interim.
Of course, none of this should matter. "Idol" fans should just vote for talent, whether that talent comes in the form of an R&B diva like Candice Glover, a Latin AC crooner like Devin Velez, a gospel belter like Curtis Finch Jr., or a throwback country girl like Janelle Arthur. And there was a time when that sort of diverse voter base was an actual reality for "American Idol," back when anyone from Ruben Studdard to Carrie Underwood to Taylor Hicks to Jordin Sparks had an equal shot. But let's be honest: That was a long time ago. The core "Idol" viewership has become much more specific in the past few years--until very recently, that is, when show's audience changed yet again. And the show's audience got smaller.
Really, if "Idol" honchos had wanted to manipulate the show to help out its female contestants--a noble and understandable endeavor, given the many proverbial glass ceilings and brick walls that girl singers have frustratingly crashed into during recent seasons--there was a much easier and wiser way to go about it. They could have just limited the number of times a viewer can vote, and/or made iTunes sales count as votes. Rival show "The Voice" actually does both of these things, and those rules helped "The Voice" crown a powerhouse female winner, Cassadee Pope, last year--without losing any viewers that may have tuned in primarily for cute dudes like Terry McDermott or Dez Duron. It really was the best of both worlds.
And now that the new season of "The Voice" already has options like male model Josiah Hawley, funny bar singer Christian Porter, lip-pierced emo boy Garrett Gardner, Warren Stone (who is in fact a rugged firefighter!), and Midas Whale (a duo featuring what could be called "Idol's" original cute-rock-boy archetype, Jon Peter Lewis), "Idol" may lose even more 18-to-49 viewers in the weeks ahead.
So, what can "American Idol" do? Well, it's a little too late for the judges to start calling some guitar-playing male Wild Cards back to the show (and I don't want to discredit this year's very talented girls by even jokingly suggesting they do that). It simply may be too late to bring back the four million or so "Idol" viewers that have defected this season. But next season? Well, the show better find a balance between genres and genders, so that there's a little something for everyone. And then, hopefully, may the best man or woman win--and may "Idol" win in this ongoing ratings war.