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No. 9: American Idol

Season 9 of “American Idol” embraced a grand social experiment. For the first time ever, the Fox singing factory allowed its contestants to break the online cone of silence, granting them their own Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

Three months in, the experiment collapsed: The contestants’ pages were shut down, and the singers got herded into the official “Idol” Facebook page. In the meantime, ratings dropped steadily from the show’s 29.7 million season debut.

“Idol” tweaks
Not that the reality show wasn’t a ratings behemoth. Still, the backpedaling reflected the constant tinkering with the show’s format — and the tweaks weren’t working. “American Idol” took quite a few arrows in its hide this year, not all aimed at the singers.

One target: the judging panel, which had lost the ditsy charm of Paula Abdul. The promising prospect of likable Ellen DeGeneres fizzled out, her appeal lost in a foursome. Then there were questions about host Ryan Seacrest‘s “bizarre” behavior. The imminent departure of co-creator Simon Cowell cast a shadow over the show, especially as the lame-duck judge tuned down his lacerating charm, possibly because he’d tuned out.

As for the contestants, viewers complained of a lackluster crew. It didn’t help that the stage looked more like a sick ward, what with the competitors’ diabetes complications, laryngitis, and walking pneumonia. When the finale rolled around, 24.2 million tuned in — eminently respectable, but an 18% drop from 2009. Even online curiosity took a dip — never a good sign for one’s water cooler buzz.

Impressive guests, predictable outcome
“Idol” did showcase an impressive slate of guest musical acts, including Ke$ha, Lady Gaga (annoyed tweet aside), Perez Hilton protege Travis Garland (his former boy-band brother is Kevin McHale, the wheelchair warbler Artie in “Glee” ), and Janet Jackson. More importantly, “Idol” flexed its philanthropic arm and raised more than $45 million for charities worldwide.

To no one’s surprise, Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox made the top two, and, repeating the patterns of seasons past, the dark horse (DeWyze) beat out the frontrunner (Bowersox). By now, though, contestants and the audience were wise to the power of “Idol”: You don’t need first place to land a contract.

Judgment day
The real suspense lay in which judges would be voted out, and who could possibly replace the appealingly dour Cowell. First up: Short-timer DeGeneres got the show to unshackle her from her five-year contract. Kara DioGuardi, the Abdul threat, lost her slot next. That left Randy Jackson to be joined by Season 10 saviors: Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and (could it be) Jennifer Lopez.

For all its critics, “Idol” remains an industry machine, finding new acts and reviving old ones. But after an anticlimactic farewell, the big buzz will be how about the show will survive in a post-Cowell climate. And in the end, for a show that depends on viewers to choose their own idols, the audience gets the season they deserve.

–Vera H-C Chan

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