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Advanced Writing Series
Advanced Writing Series
Advanced Writing Series
Established 1996
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Advanced Writing Series







Getting the Concept Right - Saving American Idol

Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole

Note: American Idol representatives can read and use this with no liability: A release is at the end.


Somewhere between the electron and the entire universe (micro/macro) lies a concept that is exactly the right size and shape for a story or a series. Using a concept (usually a three line description) focuses a story so that it has more power. In a series, a concept not only provides focus, it enables growth. If the concept is too small, it kills the series within a year. If it is too large, the series lacks the focus to draw an audience. Getting the concept just right can keep a series on for 20 years.


I watched the Seinfeld series for two years. After that it lost its intrigue. Other fans watched it for 9 seasons and are still watching in reruns. The Lawrence Welk Show I watched for a few years in my youth, but eventually rock music won my ear. Being in radio gave me an openness to different musical styles that has kept me current no matter what the trend. Recently I wrote the lyrics for four rap and hip hop songs (which may or may not make it, depending on a film production). Welk began in the early 1950s, and somehow managed to stay in production for 27 years, and is still in reruns. Gunsmoke kept its appeal for 20 years, and is still a favorite in reruns.

Why do some series fold after a year or two, while others stay on forever? Part of the secret is novelty. People like what is new. Seinfeld had a mix of the same people and different people in the cast each week. Each week the story was very different. Gunsmoke had a mixture of the same cast plus different guest stars each week. Each story was very different. Lawrence Welk had a mixture of the same solid musical stars, plus guest stars and discovered talent every week. Each week was very different.

One on hand, people love what they can expect to be there - the great talent they are familiar with. They also love variety. So if you add the two, it's a mixture with so much chemistry that you have a magic formula. Formula is a bad word - it implies doing the same old things. I like to use the term "architecture." Every building contains square boxes. The architecture makes it appealing. You have to forget formulas and architect a story or series - put in it what pleases an audience.

Sometimes you have to shake things up - do something totally unexpected. On the Magnum PI series, which was an action adventure series, toward the end of its 8 year run the writers had Magnum shoot a spy who was going to go on and cause major damage. You really never saw this in stories. There was a code: Fights had to be fair and you only shot someone who was shooting at you - especially not in the back. Magnum broke that taboo and shot someone in cold blood. Today, doing unexpected things generates buzz and keeps people interested. It can also backfire.

American Idol, which I've mention on this Web site a few times, is now in its 8th. US season, and is one of my favorite programs. I like music, and I like to see musicians succeed at their work. I literally hate it when every performer leaves - I want him/her to stay and entertain me. These people in the last 24 are just so good (except for a few). Plus I think this is a great method for developing aspiring artists. But Am. Idol is losing its luster, and it's having growing pains.

The talent is very good, and everyone gets a fair chance, but the concept is getting stale. The sparring between Simon (a judge) and Ryan (the host), is getting old. (It was nice to see Paula come down to earth this year.) The results shows are way too contrived and the audience (me) and the contestants feel manipulated (which is a big no-no for me). The judges' comments are same old comments: Paula makes sure there are positive vibes, Simon is painfully blunt, but right on target more often than not. Randy generally has some good comments that are closer to his industry participation. Kara's comments are more like Randy's. What can happen is a downward slide when the program fails to intrigue.

Variety is the spice of life. The challenge is to either invent something new or design the program so that it can evolve with new intriguing things. Compare these open and closed concepts in the following statements: "That's bad," and "Why do you think that's bad?" One statement is closed - it can go nowhere in a conversation. The other statement invites participation and more conversation. The second statement can literally go anywhere of interest.

Concepts in a story are the same. It is much less expensive and much more predictable for existing programs to have open concepts that evolve, than to create new programs. Open and evolving programs build on what the audience likes. Just like a restaurant has to change 30% of its menu each year to continue to interest people, a program has to continue changing its menu.

Everyone has heard it said by some on American Idol that it is a "vocal contest." Should this be the concept? Vocal ability is the cornerstone of the competition and should stay center stage, but should the concept be broadened. This year they talked about "artistry." Within artistry they talked about vocal range, tonal quality, inflection, song interpretation, and creating new up-to-date renditions. This was a step forward. But I'm not sure it was enough of a step to keep people interested.

Often mentioned, but not really judged in the early stages, are other important factors in a performance: choreography, costume and appearance, instruments, musical genre, stage presence, and audience interaction. It's actually the voters who judge the performance. But where can this show go to garner interest? The show America's Got Talent draws a wide variety of talent, but it lacks the focus to draw the interest That Am. Idol does. How do you create a concept that is wide enough, but not too wide?

What is American Idol actually about? It's about having and developing a great voice. It's about overall performance. It's about artistry. It's about pleasing an audience. It's about launching a successful music career. It's about touring with a group after the program. It could very well be about all of the things that it takes to launch a successful music career: talent; learning new things; working with others; picking the right music for yourself the audience and the times; forming a band, and touring. What if each contestant in the final 24 had a crew who worked with him, or had rotating experts who worked with him? Some people think that musicians are a dime a dozen and anyone can do it. Making music is not an easy task, and we need to see how difficult that task is to appreciate it.

Including all of these things may be too broad to keep focus. So each year the focus should be on just a couple of these. Then, instead of the useless filler such as sniping between staff and useless pauses intended to build dramatic tension, the audience could see the requirements and struggles that it takes to become a successful musician and build a career.

Each year the focus could change to one or more of the following:

  • Vocal range, inflection, and vocal development
  • Musical styles and genres - struggles and choices
  • Costume selection and appearance - recommendations, genre, struggles, choices
  • Song selection - recommendations, struggles, choices
  • Career opportunities in various musical genres
  • Music interpretation and inflection
  • Writing lyrics - specialists advice, struggles
  • Writing music - specialists advice, struggles
  • Musical rendition - recomposing existing music for genre and today
  • Choreography - specialists advice on genre and style, struggles
  • Diversity - learning and borrowing from other styles
  • Stage presence, confidence, audience interaction
  • Working with others (essential to working with bands and productions) - struggles
  • Publicity and marketing
  • Forming a band and making music
  • Road performance and life
  • Recording contracts, music royalties, and performances: how the money is made

While I'm on the topic of American Idol, I will add a few comments.

Judging has to be almost as difficult as performing. The judge always has to critique, always has to have something to say, and is expected to give sage advice as from professionals in the industry. That part has to be a given, and I wouldn't worry about using conflict between staff personalities as a device for ratings. The entertainment has to focus on the performers: their performance, their growth, their struggles. Judges simply have to prove their authority (comes from industry experience) and their worth (give generally good advice from their particular perspective). Judges should come from different perspectives in the industry.

Care should be taken that the voting doesn't result in a spurious or undeserving selection. The idea that certain voters can keep less talented contestants on the program through several weeks to me is an injustice to the other contestants, and invalidates the results. And another problem is created when a contestant gets voted off - I think it takes a while for the audience to find another favorite. I think the voting methods should be modified to allow for that.

Another problem with voting is that no one can be good all the time in every genre, and genres are unequally represented in the voting. A contestant really should have three consecutive performances as the basis for voting. To make the voting more fair, I think four changes should happen:

  1. I think it should be much more difficult for people to vote multiple times. It may be a measure of passion, but it is meaningless to the end result. More than one vote from the same telephone number or IP Address should not count.
  2. I think the judges should have the power to keep a contestant on for another week. Most contestants should not leave the program on the basis of a single vote. This is spurious - too subject to external circumstances.
  3. A different system should be used besides the weekly count. While popularity should be indicated by the weekly count, one vote should not kill off a contestant. A more accurate system is the point accumulation system used in the Olympics. Such a system, that looks at several technical points, could bring a final 3 contestants to be voted on solely by the audience. Another method is a rolling average in which the sum of the last three votes becomes the total used for keeping or retaining the contestant.
  4. Several musical genres are present in the contest, but that means very diverse sections of the audience latch onto various contestants that represent the style they like. The end result is a disaster. Less popular genres have fewer fans, and those contestants are unlikely to win. Let there be three genres that are currently relevant and let there be a winner of each: Probably hip hop, rock, and country.
  5. What if there were peer judges: Those in the business, those who have been voted off?

In the judging of the final three, all extraneous influences should be removed. Music choices should be those of the contestants, not the judges or producers. Their selections should come much earlier. In the end it should come down to audience appreciation and audience selection of the contestant's best three performances.

While I like the talent on display in the results show, I actively dislike the contrived atmosphere, the waste of time, and the tear jerker goodbye song. There is a simple fix: Make it a part of the competition. Let those in danger sing for their lives or points, and get a nod or nay from the judges and those contestants already voted off. Let the contestants try out with an active band that may be looking for new talent. Let the contestants perform something they've been working on and want to try out before a live audience without being voted on and damaging their chances. Let others besides the judges give feedback.

Music changes over time and diversity is very important for a recording artist to stay alive in the industry. Those who can't adapt have short careers. Only a few are timeless. American Idol does a great service by encouraging artists to become more diverse in their style, and by exposing new generations of music lovers in the audience to the diversity of style throughout the years. That important point being said, this year there was too much diversity that covered most of the industry through the years, and things like the Rat Pack and show tunes should only be an occasional exception to what is current. The focus should be on the current industry.

By using the concept of building a successful musical career, there can be multiple winners: those who go on tour, winners of different genres, and an overall winner of great talent with wide appeal. American Idol is the Olympics of popular music. It should take that mantel and wear it proudly and responsibly for years to come.

Good luck to American Idol. Hopefully expanding the concept of what American Idol is about can provide the platform for many more years of developing great talent and entertaining us.

Disclaimer and Release: The author and affiliated companies are in no way affiliated with or compensated by American Idol or its affiliates or personnel, nor does the author have inside knowledge of American Idol operations. The comments given here by the author are in the spirit of improving entertainment through understanding and applying the power of a "concept." While this article is copyrighted content, American Idol and its affiliated personnel can use this content to improve its program or generate discussion without getting permission from the author or his companies or paying a fee. (You can pay me if you want. If it doesn't work, you can't sue me.) Anyone else has to beg or pay big bucks to use this... well, it's out there now, isn't it - silly me.

- Scott

Other distribution restrictions: None

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