Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- A month into the season that doubters predicted could end the reign of TV juggernaut “American Idol,” new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez have done more than win over skeptics. They’ve made “American Idol” fun again.
That the rock star and the pop singer could vanquish memories of judges Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres should surprise nobody. That they’ve nearly done the same for the presumably irreplaceable Simon Cowell is a small miracle.
In its 10th season, “Idol” remains a ratings powerhouse, typically grabbing more than 20 million viewers a night. Still, several seasons of mediocre winners, last year’s misguided switch to a four-judge panel and a timid performance by DeGeneres left it looking like a warhorse past its prime.
Enter Tyler, the longtime Aerosmith frontman who bashed out an impromptu drum solo during an unplanned pause in the competition. Who better than a rock star to get the party restarted?
With his streaked tresses, jangling bracelets, comically big mouth and cheekbones so unnaturally taut they make a mockery of conventional rock-star indifference -- no craggy Keith Richards here -- Tyler is a new thing on the prime-time stage: a louche, semi-reformed reprobate rock god who seems to have stumbled into the wrong studio.
But then he closes his eyes and listens, really listens, to the contestants. The man takes this stuff seriously, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Early in the season, “Idol” producers made the mistake of showboating Tyler’s bad-boy persona with camera shots telegraphing every lascivious leer. The ploy seemed less offensive than hokey. Tyler, whose arena-honed banshee shriek can signal either pleasure or impatience, needs no help getting his points across.
Lopez, too, has carved herself a comfortable niche. She does heart and empathy as well as Paula Abdul ever did, and without the loopy incoherence. By season’s end, Lopez just might beat Tyler for the as yet unfilled arbiter role left vacant by Cowell. The question of which judge will emerge more equal than the others could prove as compelling a competition as anything onstage.
And then there’s Randy Jackson. It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for the show’s original No. 3 as he maneuvers to find a new place in the hierarchy. His attempts at Simonesque sarcasm come off less like truth-telling than the crankiness of a veteran outplayed by upstarts.
“American Idol” airs Wednesday and Thursday on Fox at 8 p.m. New York time.
Unlike “American Idol,” CNN isn’t having much luck with its latest replacement. “Piers Morgan Tonight,” now a month into its run in the 9 p.m. weeknight spot long held by Larry King, is losing viewers. No mystery why: The program, to put it as bluntly as the “America’s Got Talent” judge himself might, is too often a bore.
More than 2 million viewers watched Morgan’s opening night on Jan. 17, a figure boosted by the presence of inaugural guest Oprah Winfrey. By late January, viewership was slipping to fewer than 500,000. CNN reportedly has hired Barbara Walters’s former booker to land better guests. Getting them will be just the beginning.
Morgan’s cozy treatment of Winfrey was understandable. She is, after all, Oprah Winfrey. Then he showed similar deference to some self-proclaimed exorcist or the Bravo channel’s newly appointed love guru. A new strategy is all but demanded.
The host occasionally shows flashes of the bite that earned his reputation as a droller Simon Cowell.
“Why not just get over it?” he asked the Winklevoss twins about their battle with Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg. He was no doubt speaking for anyone who saw “The Social Network.”
More often he seems less Cowell than cowed. He opened his exclusive interview with Janet Jackson on Feb. 15 by informing viewers that “she said I could ask her anything,” then spent the next hour asking anything but what most viewers might hope. When Jackson confided her addiction to caramel apples, the ostensible bad boy of British TV cooed, “Oooh, they’re nice.”
“Piers Morgan Tonight” airs weeknights on CNN at 9 p.m. New York time.
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(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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