Theme Nights

I wish I could make fun of American Idol for doing Neil Diamond Night, but despite the absurdity of referring to the Laurence Olivier Jazz Singer as a career highlight, it can’t be done: Neil Diamond’s a talented guy. (“I’m a Believer” may be one of the most over-played songs, but it’s a good song and he wrote it.) Most of the songwriters covered on these “Theme Nights” are good songwriters — okay, I’m still not convinced on Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The thing is, though, and I know many other people have pointed this out before me, the song choices on American Idol may be linked with the show’s declining ratings among young viewers. (Mind you, a ratings “decline” for AI just means its ratings go from infinite to merely cosmic. But since they’re on a network that really doesn’t have many big hits besides AI and House, merely great ratings for AI are actually below Fox’s requirements; they need AI to carry their entire network.) It’s not just that these viewers rarely hear a contemporary song, they rarely hear a song that has much of an edge to it. AI always has to do a complicated balancing act between appealing to younger viewers — since it’s on a network that has no interest in any viewer over 40 — and its true identity as an old-fashioned family variety show. In the last couple of years, what seems to have happened is that more “core” Fox viewers have gotten wise to the fact that the show really is aimed at older viewers, and they’re slowly losing interest.

I don’t think there’s actually much that AI can do about that. Song selection on variety shows has always been a problem, because you need songs that can appeal to a broad range of viewers. It’s not like on late-night shows, where the musical sequences are short enough that anybody who doesn’t like this particular kind of music can go to the kitchen for a snack. (After the host introduces the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, millions of refrigerators are opened all across the world.) Mass-audience prime-time variety shows have to be as safe as possible in the songs they pick, which is why if you look at an old episode of Sonny and Cher you’ll notice that they’re also singing a bunch of songs from 20 years ago. Even Sonny and Cher were a little more contemporary than a song like “Teach Me Tonight,” which they sang at the beginning of one episode — and which, surprise surprise, has also been covered on American Idol — but a song from 1953 has a low risk of offending any large segment of the viewership. The question is whether AI has crossed the line where their low-risk song selections are actually turning people off, and thereby becoming a little riskier than they were supposed to be.

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