“American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars”: Old Habits Die Hard

Dancing Idol

American Idol and Dancing with the Stars have long since ceased to be the nation’s two most-talked about reality competitions. Idol has become increasingly adrift since Simon Cowell’s departure and the recent White Guy with Guitar phenomenon (extinguished last year due to blatant producer manipulation), while Dancing has fallen victim to a case of stubborn, agreeable familiarity: the show isn’t really capable of fully reinventing itself without alienating its core, older-skewing fanbase. Nonetheless, both of these shows remain at the center of their networks’ fall and spring lineups, and they’ve both recently made casting announcements. Time for some knee-jerk analysis!

I’m of two minds on the news that this year’s Idol judges will be Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. On the one hand, former Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe cited these three artists as his ideal panel months before this announcement, and all three have proven capable of solid criticism and likability at some point throughout their previous tenure on Idol. On the other hand, this panel doesn’t seem particularly exciting, noteworthy or attention-grabbing. I don’t expect the show to radically evolve with this new panel, and for a show that’s dangerous approaching irrelevance as it winds its way through double-digit seasons, evolution is critical.

If the new producers allow Urban, Lopez and Connick to work at their peak potential, giving them free reign to voice their opinions without forcing them to regurgitate to a pre-ordained narrative or suppress their criticisms, this panel might breathe fresh life into an aging franchise. If these three don’t work well together or don’t seem engaged in the competition, though, Idol could slide even further.

Dancing with the Stars, meanwhile, has been forced to make structural changes. The network announced in May that the show will air only once a week, forcing the producers to combine the performance and results nights into a single two-hour broadcast. Will this new format invigorate a show that has remained resolute in its traditional rhythms for the past seventeen seasons? Or will audiences rebel against a show that has to cram in too much content into a single timeslot? It remains to be seen. This new cast, similar to the Idol panel, isn’t inherently troubling, but it lacks a refreshing twist, relying on tropes that past seasons have worn out (the Disney star, the football player, the aging actress, the goofball comedian, the reality trainwreck). Oh, and Bill Nye the Science Guy will be there. However popular he might be in an academic capacity, I’m guessing Nye won’t be doubling the show’s ratings by any means.

Will either of these shows regain its former ratings dominance? I doubt it. But if the network and the producers want to plug the leaks, they’re going to need to be bolder next time.

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