Only America Can Save “Idol”

The new judges are a surprise hit and the contestants are the best in years. Now the public needs to get its act together after the Pia Toscano voting debacle

The outrage that greeted the baffling bouncing of Pia Toscano from "American Idol" overshadowed another disturbing omen: last week's bottom-three finish of Jacob Lusk.

That the two strongest contestants finished in the lower third doesn't bode well for "Idol" in a pivotal season that has proven full of surprises – good and bad.

The new judging lineup, defying all expectations, is great. Ditto for the contestants, who are the best in years. Now, with the show headed into its crucial final weeks beginning Wednesday night, all we need is the public to get its act together – because only America can save "American Idol."

If that sounds melodramatic, it's a pronouncement befitting an emotion-machine of a show that defied the odds to make us care again, a year after even the then-in-flux panel seemed to lose interest in an unusually weak crop of wannabe pop stars.

It’s been a season of renewal for “Idol”:  Steven Tyler's infectious ants-in-his-leather-pants energy, Jennifer Lopez' mix of empathy and well-reasoned critiques – combined with a relatively serious and subdued Randy Jackson – are a collective lesson in chemistry creation. The trio picked a talented group of finalists who actually seem to be getting better week to week – improvement that can be attributed by mentoring led by Interscope honcho Jimmy Iovine.

Allowing online voting also seemed a smart attempt to reduce the perceived advantage for contestants favored by the AT&T-dominated South. But the first major sign all was not well came last month, when quirky rocker Casey Abrams was voted off – prompting the judges to use their only "save" of the season to spare him.

Perhaps they wished they hadn't last week when Toscano got booted. We could chalk up her ouster to a stunning, but relatively rare instance of the voters being far out of sync with the judges – and seemingly with much of the rest of viewing public. But her expulsion, coupled with poor showings by Abrams, who we'd rank in the top half of the remaining eight, and Lusk, who is the best of the crew, portends bigger problems.

We're not sure what's happening, whether it’s a quirk of the new voting system or a sign of some kind of larger pop-cultural shift. An age of Bieber-crazed teenyboppers might not make for easy going for female contestants (we could be headed to an all-male final three – there hasn’t been a female winner since Jordin Sparks in Season 6). Then again, it's also the age of Gaga and her own strange brand of girl power.

Nigel Lythgoe, who returned as the show’s executive producer this season, mused to Yahoo! about possibly letting the judges next year decide week-to-week on which of the bottom three vote getters goes, as with his other talent show, “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Part of the charm of "Idol," though, has been its curious form of text-till-you-drop democracy, even if that's brought temporary setbacks to the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Melinda Doolittle and, now, Toscano. But this time, it’s less about the contestants and more about the overall momentum and direction of the show.

“Idol” has staged a remarkable comeback – now it's time for the audience to rebound.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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