Show makes tweaks to retain top ratings

After six seasons, “American Idol” is among the best-produced shows in primetime — yet it has never claimed an Emmy for reality show.

This year, if the producers manage to keep up interest for what’s been deemed an unspectacular group of contestants, they probably deserve one.

“No question the show’s softer this year,” says one insider. “There are no exciting personalities. It’s just rather vanilla.”

Critics, bloggers and snarky web posters are echoing that sentiment. Web sites like VoteForTheWorst.com are scoring record traffic as they urge viewers to throw their support behind weak singers like pre-teen fave Sanjaya Malakar.

And the ratings appear to be bearing that out.

“Idol” is still a monster, and bowed to record numbers at the start of its sixth season. But more recently, the show has consistently underperformed the corresponding nights of a year ago.

It’s not a new phenom: The third season of “Idol” also lacked a strong stable of contenders. The show took a ratings hit that cycle as a result, and the format was revamped.

“The middle rounds were always suffering, and viewers weren’t connecting to the people as much,” Fox reality chief Mike Darnell says.

The show’s producers dumped the old semifinal format — in which individual groups of eight performed, and then stayed off the air for several weeks as other groups competed — in favor of dividing the contestants by gender.

The show roared back, as viewers grew more invested in the personalities. Other tweaks have followed, such as raising the show’s age threshold (allowing for last year’s winner, gray-haired Taylor Hicks).

“My guess is, we’ll get together in the middle of this year and decide what we’ll do for next year,” Darnell adds.

But tweaks will likely be minor.

Exec producer Nigel Lythgoe believes the show has already gone through its major change, with its Season 4 methodology adjustment.

“We are about as close to getting the right format now to allow us to do minor changes,” he says.

Now, the show’s biggest evolution every year comes in the form of new contestants. That, however, can be a hit-or-miss part of the equation.

“When we have a year that’s not so great in talent, I can see a ratings drop of 3% or 4 %,” says Lythgoe. Still, he doesn’t think this season is one of those off years.

“I don’t believe our talent is poor this year,” he says. “We will end up with a solid top five. And I’m not ashamed of our top 10. There are years where I’m ashamed of one or two in the top 10 — not this year. I’m not ashamed of Sanjaya.”

Darnell dismisses concern that this year’s competish is already wrapped up, with an inevitable Melinda Doolittle vs. Lakisha Jones showdown.

“This is one of the most competitive years we’ve had,” Darnell says. “There’s not been one year where the person who everyone at first thinks will win has ended up winning.”

In terms of keeping “Idol” front and center as water-cooler TV, Lythgoe says it’s part production and part luck.

“I love the results show because that’s when we really get to produce,” he says. The half-hour (or hour) usually contains a contestant production number, a performance by the week’s guest (such as Diana Ross), an inhouse-produced Ford commercial/musicvideo, and then the actual vote off.

Then there’s the ever-evolving relationship among judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, and host Ryan Seacrest.

Serendipity also plays a role.

Last week, producers were thanking goodness for little girls — or at least, 13-year-old girls who can bawl on cue. Producers kept cutting to a tear-soaked teenybopper — overwhelmed by seeing her “Idols” in person — giving viewers yet another topic to flood the chat rooms.

“Idol” also changes week to week, depending on the superstar guests, who help tutor the singers but no longer appear on the live telecast alongside the regular judges.

The show has skewed older in recent weeks, with guest spots by Ross, Lulu and Peter Noone. But younger stars like Gwen Stefani and Jennifer Lopez are also set to make an appearance.

Lythgoe says so many older artists appear because the songs of the ’60s and ’70s – “songs with melodies,” he notes — work better on “Idol.”

Next up, “Idol” has paired with screenwriter/humanitarian Richard Curtis to throw “Idol Gives Back,” a two-night charity event, in April. Stefani, Josh Groban, Pink, Annie Lennox and possibly Bono will appear.

Then there’s the two-hour “Idol” finale in May; Lythgoe hopes to top last year’s event, which included a performance by Prince. With both mega-events taking up producers’ time, plans to hold a songwriting contest to determine the “Idol” winner’s first recording may be put on hold.

“On the fly, these guys do the best performance show, better than the Grammys, Emmy or Oscars, as their last episode,” Darnell says. “At the same time, they’re shooting two new episodes a week. The show itself is a marvel. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s amazing. But every year, we try to give it a kick in the pants.”

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