Does 'American Idol' Need a Shakeup?

As the seventh season of American Idol reaches its finale tonight, the show remains a big hit. But Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris thinks Idol needs a facelift — with less product placement and more spontaneity.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Another sort of championship is a story of David versus David. If there's any Goliath involved, it is the hit TV program that will announce tonight's winner, "American Idol."

(Soundbite of TV show, "American Idol")

Mr. RYAN SEACREST (Host, "American Idol"): Who's here for Cook? Who are the Cook fans?

(Soundbite of Applause)

Mr. SEACREST: Let me hear you if you love David Archuleta.

(Soundbite of Applause)

INSKEEP: Ryan Seacrest is, of course, referring to David Archuleta and David Cook. Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris will be among the millions watching the finale, although he's not too happy about it. And why not, Mr. Harris?

Mr. MARK HARRIS (Columnist, Entertainment Weekly): Well, I'm pretty happy about the finale, since I think for once we have two people in it with strong rooting interest. What I'm not happy about is the whole season that led up to it. I think this was "American Idol's" seventh year, and some of the things that we've put up with for many years in a row now really started to look tired this year, from the products placement, which never seems to end, to the lack of attention paid by the judges, to just the general sense that these contestants aren't really being discovered so much as beaten down into becoming corporatized, pre-packaged music stars.

INSKEEP: What problem could you possibly have with seeing Coke products everywhere the camera turns and the contestants in commercials in between the contestants on stage in front of the Coke logos and other logos?

Mr. HARRIS: You know, it's really funny, because this is the kind of thing that you'd expect from a show that was number 127 in the ratings and needed this kind of corporate helping hand to survive, not the show that has been number one for several years. I'm not sure why "American Idol" has always felt that it needs to go this low in terms of product placement.

INSKEEP: Although, let's face it, this is never going to be the telecast of The Masters brought to you with limited commercial interruptions.

Mr. HARRIS: That's true. And, you know, I'll go so far as to say that for much of "American Idol's" audience, it is probably more exciting than the telecast of The Masters, and at least has better music.

I mean, I think the tricky thing about "American Idol" is it's always been an example of forced spontaneity. You know, you hope to accidentally discover a star outside the normal way in the music business that a star is discovered. But the problem is after seven years, it's become the normal way a star is discovered. So it's much harder than it used to be to keep it fresh and surprising and lively.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask if there's still some value in it. There was a defense of this program in The New Yorker Magazine, which argued that hey, they discuss music. They discuss how music is made. They discuss different ways to play music. You see different arrangements of old hits.

Mr. HARRIS: Yes, I read that very good piece. I thought the word discuss was a little generous, given what goes on on "American Idol," you know.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: I'm not sure that Paula Abdul saying you look beautiful tonight constitutes a discussion. The piece was right about one thing, which is this year, we have two finalists who are polar opposites on the "American Idol" spectrum. One of them is a stage kid, and he really - over the course of the entire season - has had nothing to say for himself. And the other one, who is about eight years older, David Cook, seems to think for himself about the way he wants to look and sound and present himself a little more.

INSKEEP: Do I dare to suggest that they did seem to manage to sculpt a plotline that's drawn you in yet again this year?

Mr. HARRIS: You know, for all of their goofs, yes. These were the two guys who I think everyone wanted to see in the final this year, and that hasn't happened for the last few years.

You know, the voters, especially the teenagers who tend to vote over and over and over again, have a way of thwarting the very obvious plans of the producers. This year, either the voters were more easily manipulated by the comments of the judges, or it just worked out better.

So I think a lot of people are actually going to be kind of curious about who wins it this year.

INSKEEP: Mark Harris is a columnist for Entertainment Weekly and the author of "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood."

(Soundbite of Music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And you sound beautiful this morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Oh, you're my idol.

MONTAGNE: I'm Renee Montagne.

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