Thursday, May 22, 2008

3AM Sleepy-eyed American Idol Finale

"So it all comes down to this: Bush vs Kerry for all the marbles. Standard electoral strategy suggests that a successful candidacy depends crucially on making every possible effort to mean as much as possible to as many people as possible, i.e. to carry some appeal for a diverse group of voters, clear across the electorate. One cannot blame Kerry for sticking to this tried-and-true strategy. But what the Kerry camp does not know, and will not understand until all is lost, is that Bush and his campaign architects are planning a complete subversion of the normally accepted strategy. Bush couldn't care less about broad appeal, rather, he has a loyal and devoted base of support, and is working on growing it as much as possible. The Kerry camp underestimates the mobilization strength of the Bush camp in drawing new devotees to their cause, and overestimates it's own power to mobilize people against Bush. That is, Kerry thinks that if people don't like Bush and instead find him (Kerry) palatable enough, then he (Kerry) will have earned new voters. Bush knows that this is false, in the sense that he can trust his own voter base to a far greater degree than Kerry can trust his, and that the only way for Kerry to overcome the odds and draw out enough new voters to put him over the top is for him to put on a virtuoso performance and blow enough minds to the extent that undecided or fence-sitting voters simply have no choice but to vote for him. Bush feels that Kerry doesn't have what it takes to pull that off, and if so, then Bush will be able to cruise to victory while hardly breaking a sweat.

Hopefully it is obvious which of the Davids is Bush, and which of them is Kerry."

I wrote all that a few hours before Tuesday's show, and I'm posting it here to demonstrate how spectacularly wrong I was.

I wasn't the only one. Plenty of people have complained during this season of ups and downs that the show is in desperate need of a major shakeup, and a good place to start would be with the voting. Tens of millions of people vote each week, and yet the exact numbers are locked down tighter than the plot of the new Indiana Jones. Elections for public office don't draw this kind of voter turnout, and those numbers are laced with every statistical and demographic tidbit that the pollsters, press, and public can get its hands on. We've put up with seven years of cryptic clues and unordered "bottom threes" in a failing attempt to extract something -- anything -- about the vote tallies and rankings of the finalists from week to week. I don't just want to know who is going home, I want the actual RESULTS.

I suppose it's within the realm of possibility that Kerry really did impress enough people and inspire a swarm of Bush haters to rush to their telephones to vote for him or against his hated rival (whatever their disposition). But it's a lot more likely that David Cook dominated the voting from day one, which led to panicky AI producers -- fearful of a suspense-less season when ratings had noticeably sagged -- devising a way to convince the viewers that somebody else had a reasonable chance of winning. The judges amped up their gushing accolades for David Archuleta and practically handed him the title after Tuesday's show in order to try to make a contest out of the whole thing. What, all of this sounds like a crackheaded conspiracy theory to you? This is precisely what happened in Season Two, and producer Nigel Lithgoe even admitted it himself. Clay was miles ahead in the voting, so the show directed itself toward concocting a Clay vs Ruben rivalry based around their contrast in styles.

Now, one could argue that the proof is in the pudding vis a vis Season Two, that what could have been a boring season with a foregone conclusion was reshaped into a fierce, months-long battle that is still remembered fondly by fans of the show. On the other hand, we didn't get the season we asked for (and voted for), instead, we got the season that was assigned to us by the producers. Lithgoe's reasoning about people not watching if they knew that one contestant had a big lead simply doesn't hold water. To use another US political analogy, it's like saying that when Hilary had a 20-something percentage lead over Obama in the polls one year ago, then the nomination was effectively secured because nobody would bother supporting Obama when he trailed by so much and seemingly had little shot of winning. Or fine, enough with the politics, if you want an example from the entertainment industry, how about the 1997 Oscars, which was one of the highest rated Oscar broadcasts in recent memory purely on the strength of people tuning in to watch "Titanic" romp over the competition in one of the most obvious Best Picture wins ever. A lot can happen over the course of a season. Sometimes the favourites pick up more steam, sometimes they tread water and the competition steps up, sometimes the backlash kicks in and they wither under the pressure. All those possibilities make for interesting TV. And if it's known that two contestants are close in the voting (no matter where they are placed, but especially if they are on the bubble), the increase in voter urgency can result in plenty of "battles within the battle" and make for *really* interesting TV.

In the end, I couldn't stay awake for most of the finale, but caught the big finish with George Michael's performance and the announcement of the winner. That's pretty much a microcosm of my American Idol Season 7 viewing experience.

No comments: