‘American Idol’ Ratings Woes: A Prescription for Recovery (Guest Blog)

american idol

Once TV’s No. 1 show, Fox’s singing competition needs to regain its emotional connection

A few years back, Fox won each and every viewing season since no matter how their fall schedule fared, January brought a guaranteed ratings titan: “American Idol.” Another network might have a breakout hit or two among its scripted offerings but “Idol” was so dominant that Fox was guaranteed to win the season.

And then things changed. As recently outlined by TheWrap‘s Tim Kenneally, the former juggernaut has been suffering a ratings decline for many years, from an average of 30.8 million viewers at its high point to an average of only 12.9 million viewers in the season-to-date. I’ve not seen past seasons and so can’t say what did or didn’t work but in watching the current season there is one thing that is missing and the show is suffering because of it.

What’s missing is connection. An emotional connection shared between performer and audience. Because at the end of the day, audience members want to feel something.

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The contestants are inside their own heads, understandably focused on perfecting their vocals. But the judges’ comments often focus on the fact that the contestants are not emotionally connecting with the audience.

For example, during a recent episode Keith Urban told one contestant “that song, when you really dig into what it’s about, it’s really heartbreaking. I would have liked a little more heartbreak in that performance, because I heard it but I didn’t feel it”. And to another he said “the way your eyes look when you perform sometimes feels inconsistent with what I’m hearing, it’s like there’s a disconnect.”

Jennifer Lopez told one contestant “I believed you when you were singing that song, and that is so important for an audience to feel”. And to another she said “we do rehearse and we do practice and we do want to make it perfect [but] once you get up there, you have to throw all that out the window and just feel.”

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There’s a disconnect of feeling, of emotion generated by a performance and shared with the audience.

It’s a frustrating, recurring problem so what to do? The good news is that every song is a story, full of emotion. Whether it’s the joy of a great party, the anger of being dumped or the sadness of the death of a loved one, every song is an artistic expression of emotion. It is a story waiting to be told. And felt.

The performer/storyteller feels the emotion of the story, lives inside of it then shares it with the audience. That the audience wants to feel something has been the case throughout history and if anything it is even more so in today’s disconnected, information-overload world where shared feelings are in short supply.

In day-to-day life we tend to admire people who are calm, cool and collected but when performing live on stage it’s time to get out of your own head and stop thinking about the technical perfections of the song. It’s time to cut loose, to let go and lose yourself in the performance and invite the audience along for the ride. And yes, that is taking a risk when performing live but if the performer feels it then the audience feels it.

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So does this mean that “American Idol” contestants should be trained in the Shakespearean or other theatrical arts? Absolutely not. To go through the motions of emotion would be disastrous. To take untrained performers and quickly try to get them to a Broadway-ready level is just not practical; and bad theater is downright painful.

Further, it’s the millions of fans watching on television who will vote and decide who lives and who dies on the show. And those fans are watching camera close-ups from multiple angles and thus the performance is more like a film or TV production than a Shakespearean play with its theatrical gestures that must be projected to the people in the back row. The idea isn’t to fake emotion via stagecraft but rather to teach the contestants how to generate real emotion. Teach them how to create truth under imaginary circumstances.

How? How can a contestant find and express the emotion in the story, the emotion in the song? There are many techniques for emotional preparation and expression and I’d like to recommend two of them.

The first technique is emotional divining — tapping into the emotion that already exists in the song. To tap into the emotion of the song, to feel your way through the story, read the song lyrics and then imagine how you would feel if you were at that fantastic party, if you were going through that bitter break-up, if someone close to you had just died. This is not faking it, this is not going through the motions, this is tapping into real emotion, amplifying it through your body and sharing it with the audience.

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The second technique is emotional recall, tapping into the emotion that already exists in the singer. Think back to the last time in your life that you really felt joy, pure happiness. Remember the last time you got really angry. Or sad. Remember these feelings as you prepare your song, as you prepare for your performance. And then let them flow during your performance. Yes, this requires the performer to be vulnerable, to bare his or her soul to an audience of strangers but when it works it’s like nothing else, it’s a moment that connects everyone together in ways that can’t be explained.

In the early rounds of this season of “American Idol” it was a singing competition, some people can sing and some can’t. But as time goes on the show is becoming more and more of a performance competition, and performance is all about the emotion in the song, in the singer and in the audience.