I came late to American Idol as I do to almost everything in the culture these days and in truth, I'm not even really into it as a piece of entertainment. But I am pretty interested in it as a concept. I don't know that I'd go so far as Jeff Zucker and call it the most important show in the history of television, but it's certainly in the top 10. (Would you put Survivor and Real World in that list too? I might.)
In any case, I watch Idol non-religiously more to see how the format works and what sort of decisions the audience makes. And I've come up with only two iron laws that the show seems to hold to:
(1) Simon must always be honest and sincere. It isn't meanness that makes him such a great character, it's the unpredictability of someone who will say what he thinks even though he's on television. We're so used to TV sanding down everyone's rough edges, that it makes Simon kind of dangerous. People like that. I've argued before that Idol places Simon in insincere positions (like with "Idol Gives Back") at its own peril.
(2) But the second law actually abridges the first. It's that: The judges must never disagree with the great tribune of the American people. Maybe there have been cases when a contestant is voted off the island and the judges have stood up on their behalf and disagreed in the audience, but I haven't seen them in the last few seasons. Even when the judges clearly believe a deserving contestant is given the boot while a lesser contestant is spared, they never tell the home audience that they've chosen poorly. If anything, all three judges--even Simon--go to some contortions to explain the decision and legitimize it.
I'm sure there are other format rules working in the background that I haven't picked up on. Feel free to point them out. Also, if you know of anyone who's written more seriously about Idol as a format, I'd be grateful for a link.
44 minutes ago