6 reasons I’m hooked on ‘American Idol’

I know, I know. It seems like all I ever do is hang out on the Internet.

But there’s this guilty pleasure I’ll now admit. I’m hooked on American Idol. Last night, David Cook won this year’s competition. He’s the first winner who I think may go on to be a hugely successful recording artist who I may actually enjoy listening to later. While others have certainly gone on to big success, I’m not really a fan of their music. For example, Carrie Underwood is nice looking and a megastar, but I’m not really into that commercial Nashville sound, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, since I know some people are going through AI withdrawal this morning, I thought I’d say goodbye to this season with a confessional list of six reasons why I like watching American Idol:

1. It’s perfect content for watching with a DVR like TiVo: I can honestly say, I’ve never watched an episode of American Idol “real-time” (while it is being broadcast). Even last night, my wife and I didn’t start watching the season finals until it had been on over an hour. I probably only watch about 20 minutes per hour of American Idol. I don’t like the host, the judges, most contestants or almost any of the features. I love being my own editor of the show. If you can figure out how to program your DVR remote to jump-ahead 30 seconds, you can watch the only segments I think have  any value: (a) the ‘up-close-and-personal back-story features about the contestants; (b) the performances of the really talented ones. The Fast-Forward control is the key to watching American Idol.

2. The show displays how advertisers must react to DVRs/TiVo: It is with amazement that I have discovered that while I Fast-Forward through a lot of the content of the program, I find myself stopping and reviewing some of the commercials and “sponsored” content. I’ll admit, some of this may come from my professional curiosity of what is taking place. Over the years, the show has gone from rudimentary “product placement” marketing (Coca-Cola cups on the judges table) to sophisticated and non-offensive “branded content” marketing that shows what “post-advertising” can be. Apple has become a major sponsor this year and, as typical, has displayed how “content” can be the most effective form of marketing. I may do a separate post on everything Apple has done this season, but, let’s just say: what Apple did this season on American Idol is the most brilliant display ever of network TV marketing. I doubt more than 1% of viewers recognized the array of brand-marketing, product marketing and (and this is the amazing part) direct marketing they were being bombarded with throughout each program. While Ford and Coca-Cola used the program effectively, Apple used it masterfully and in a way that proves once more their understanding of media is on a higher plane than we mere mortals.

3. The program has universal (omni-demographic) appeal: Over the years, I’ve discovered my love of NFL football means I have a topic I can strike up a conversation with people everywhere I travel in the U.S. Unlike politics or religion, a conversation about the hometown team is typically a “safe” place to start a conversation. American Idol is the same deal, except better. If you watch American Idol, you can have a bubble-gum conversation with waiters and waitresses, flight attendants, teenagers, retired couples from Florida. “What’s the deal with that Justin dude?” is good for a five minute conversation in a Southwest Airline boarding line.

4. I love story-driven competition: Next year, even if you think it would be the last sports thing you’d ever be interested in, watch the coverage of the Ironman Triathalon — the one in Hawaii. Typically, it’s a 90 minute documentary shown weeks after the event. It is mesmerizing because they focus on the stories of just a few of the participants who represent the different reasons why someone would get involved in such a sport. If American Idol was just a talent competition, I would have tuned out after a week or so — I don’t watch any other such program. However, the producers of the show find contestants who are both talented and have something about themselves that is compelling. Indeed, it can be argued that the final decision of this year’s winner came down to whose story the viewers preferred, as both of the contestants were very talented singers.

5. It makes me appreciate how very unique star-quality talent is: Living in Nashville and going to places like the Blue Bird has enabled me to be blown away by extremely talented people who will never be stars. Watching American Idol over a few months will amaze you when someone you think can’t lose ends up breaking under the pressure — or blossoming. It’s fascinating to watch who gets better and who peaks at the right time. Carrie Underwood went from being okay into super stardom during her year. I think David Cook did the same this year. Others prove that many people have a lot of talent and have worked hard and have not given up on their dream and have been lucky — but still don’t connect with the only folks who matter: the people.

6. It’s user-created content: Think about that one long and hard. While the program is perhaps one of the most over-produced and packaged programs in history, at its essence is this: People who aren’t stars and are on no-body’s A-List get a shot at getting to perform in front of a bigger audience. In the end, millions of people get to decide if they have what it takes to make it to the big-leagues, fame and fortune. There are lots of analogies there for what is taking place across all forms of media.