Note to American Idol: Fight Disruption with "Jobs to Be Done" Focus

My old guilty pleasure, American Idol, ended a few weeks ago, and I got to reflecting on the dynamics of the show itself and whether an article I wrote just before last year's finale would prove to be prophetic on review.

Last year's analysis discussed how AI was being disrupted, and whether the producers were either ignoring the problem, or didn't get it. In my review, I suggested some prescriptive changes that they needed to undertake to avoid an otherwise inevitable fate.

So, how did I do?

Last Year's Analysis and Predictions, Issues and Opportunities

  • American Idol rules the roost; as #1 rated show, it has become complacent and resistant to necessary change and highly susceptible to disruption
  • Any changes have become largely cosmetic (incremental "sustaining" innovations), and they've "overshot" the audience needs on the "slickness dimension" and no longer approximate an "authentic" experience
  • The reality that creates ratings for Fox is that only a couple of the top 12 are actually good enough to have a chance at winning.  The rest are there to become the train wrecks we want to vote off, to sass back at Simon, to sing gloriously out of tune and make us laugh, to impress with their self-absorption or self-delusion or just plain wacky personalities, to do whatever they do with Paula, and most of all, to give the audience time to get to know the eventual winner and build a following to buy their records.
  • The ruse being perpetrated is that the show is really a singing competition, when in reality the producers have constructed a promotional stage which sells lots of advertising (because of the entertainment value in seeing train wrecks get voted off the island) and a vehicle for selling pop records, crafted in the form of a quasi-reality show
  • A large minority of the audience has seen the wizard behind the curtains and tired of the deception, and using the power of the web, started to turn the tables on the show's producers, exposing the sham and actively working as a block to "Vote for the Worst", keeping the train wrecks going as long as possible at the expense of singers that the judges and producers actually wanted to "win". Last year, this resulted in the best singer (by any objective measure) being voted off early and two mediocre performers making it to the finale.  The resulting winner's album was awful, and sold miserably (opening week sales for Jordyn Sparks first AI record were less than 1/2 same stat for Fantasia, the previous worst-selling AI winner, and only about 40% of the same stat for Taylor Hicks, who was generally considered a bomb and was dropped by his label).
  • The voting system that Idol uses is suspect to begin with.  By asking the audience to vote for their favorites, and as many times as they want, they have created a system which generates revenue but can't reliably identify either the best singer or the audience favorite(s). Even superior voting systems (audience votes for the worst and the person getting the most negatives is eliminated, one vote per person, one ballet with yays and nays for all contestants tabulated, it is open to manipulation, but the way it is, the best singers and performers are routinely voted off several weeks too early.
  • Because of the above, the grand prize of a recording contract has become meaningless, and even a bit of an albatross. The contestants voted off early routinely get recording contracts and outsell the winners, because they a) can sing better, b) have more control over their albums (AI doesn't dictate what they can sing or how it gets produced), and c) therefore better songs, or at least songs they are better suited to sing, get on their albums.
 The Two Davids: David Cook and David Archuleta

The Two Davids: David Cook and David Archuleta

Note that to try to deal with the last point, the judges practically fell over themselves this season to tell the voting audience as bluntly as possible who they thought needed to go and who should stay in an apparent effort to ensure that one of their favored singers actually won this time. They became so transparent about it, that Paula got caught offering judgment about a song that hadn't yet been sung, casting the wizard's curtain wide open.

Our conclusion: the above factors are causing audience disenchantment, and eating into viewership. The cynical business model that AI uses to milk the show for maximum revenue was easily disrupted by a little website exposing the underlying deceit.

The Results Are In

So, are these predicted results actually happening?  If so, how are they manifesting?

  • Viewership in 2008 was down an astounding 7% from 2007
  • In a year where the two stars were considered "hot" guys, the primary viewing audience of women aged 18 to 34 was down by 18%
  • The median age continues to skew ever upward, from mid 30s a few years ago, to 42 today.  Hardly the prime music buying age group.
  • The over 50 age group has increased in viewership.

All this suggests increasing irrelevance to the trendsetting youth audience, boredom among core fans, and disenchantment and disenfranchisement from the process. Typically when this sort of thing begins, it is irreversible because by the time executives acknowledge it is a serious problem (whether the product is a tv show, a newspaper, or a me-too generic cell phone, it's too late to make the major changes necessary to right the ship.

Will American Idol will take my advice?  There's no doubt they have to do something and we're highly likely to see some changes next year, but the question is, how will they diagnose what's going on, and therefore come up with appropriate solutions. (It's at this point that I should helpfully point out that if they want to get the skinny on how to counter this disruption before it kills the show, I'm available as a consultant.)  Here's a little free advice:

  • The dynamics are old, and some highly visible changes are necessary. First to get the shake up should be the judging crew.  Only Simon is core to the program -- it's time for Paula and Randy to go. Besides, the show needs more authenticity, and you can always count on Simon to say what he thinks in an entertaining way.
  • Sacrifice some of the revenue stream from voting to create a system that isn't as vulnerable to manipulation (people need to believe that their votes are meaningful if they're going to keep paying attention and spending money to vote).
  • Recognize that music trends don't stay the same forever. There was a minor nod in this direction this year as David Cook got more kudos and promotion from the judging crew as the show progressed. The interesting thing about him was that he already sounded like a lot of what's on the radio, and his looks and personality didn't hurt either, so it was easy to imagine him as the winner.

Jason -- CATS is sung by cats?! -- Castro

Most of the material that gets sung on the show is from a time before these kids were born (was it such a big surprise that Jason didn't know that CATS showstopping Memory was sung by an old dying female cat?), so it isn't that surprising that it's more popular with people older than 50 than with teenagers and 20 somethings.

It would help the producers to look at this from a "jobs to be done" perspective, rather than a "what we want to sell" perspective. The job to be done is to engage the youth audience (primary music buyers), identify a new "star" that they relate to, and create records that are current and interesting to that audience.  Like Chris Daughtry did (but then, he had the advantage of being voted off and picking his own band and music -- hmmmm.)

Understand that superstar singers and bands sing hit songs. After spending most of the season telling contestants that song selection is critical, how much sense does it make to give your winner songs which don't fit their style (make a blues guy sing a sugary pop song, for example), or which are simply crap (letting amateur song writers write stuff that is total trash musically and lyrically) and then asking a newly minted winner to make it a hit song is absolutely nuts.

One possible voting system that could work better would be to count song downloads from iTunes in the 24 hours following the performance show. Even if it cost the same as texting in a vote, the fact that you get the song with it would be a big discouragement to VFTW, and iTunes doesn't let you buy the same song twice (at least not easily).

These are some easy big things that would make things more authentic, freshen things up, and introduce some sustaining innovations to counter the disruption to American Idol's artful guise.  There are several smaller things as well, but the above would be a healthy start.  If not, watch for even bigger declines next year, and a franchise that may not recover from disruption.