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Is 'American Idol' committing Emmy suicide?

August 30, 2011 |  5:00 pm

Photo: Scotty McCreery learns that he is the next American Idol during last season's grand finale. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox
It's an old saying: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If that's true, then the Emmy diagnosis for "American Idol" is insanely clear. Despite being TV's top-rated reality show -- indeed, TV's highest-rated program, period -- it is about to lose the Emmy Award for best reality-competition show for a ninth time. And no wonder: "Idol" show runners keep submitting the same sample episode to judges every year -- the season finale -- and it keeps losing. This year, they've done it again.

It's easy to understand why producers believe it might be a winner. The finale seems the most important episode of the year because it is the culmination of the entire season. It crowns a new champion singer who could potentially graduate to multi-platinum record sales and Grammy wins like previous champs Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood -- or drift into obscurity like Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks. The two-hour broadcast is often studded with singing legends performing duets with the contestants they inspired, and this year's season-ender featured superstars Beyoncé and Lady Gaga performing their own hits. And it all ends with a confetti-strewn coronation, tears and triumph. Emmy voters should be dazzled by the pomp and pageantry, right?

No. There's a problem: There are no actual competition elements in the episode, and competing in the reality-competition category with such an episode is like -- well, like auditioning for "American Idol" with a dance routine. The episode amounts to a live concert capped with the opening of an envelope (imagine the Grammy telecast, except with only one category), a process that itself is deflated of suspense because, by the time Emmy voters are watching it, the winner of "American Idol" is already yesterday's news. And even if Lady Gaga brings the house down, that has more to do with promoting her single than with the search for the next singing superstar.

If the strategy had a history of working, repeating the formula would be understandable, but Emmy judges have demonstrated eight years in a row that it's not what they're looking for. For seven years in a row they honored "The Amazing Race," every episode of which is a fast-paced, breakneck contest showcasing exotic locales, top-level production values and lively contestant personalities. This year, they submitted "You Don't Get Paid Unless You Win," in which contestants navigate India. A pair of goth teammates is so overwhelmed during a challenge that one of them jumps out of a boat into the Ganges river.

Last year the "Amazing" winning streak ended when voters honored Bravo's "Top Chef," which this year submitted "Give Me Your Huddled Masses," in which contestants must make dishes based on their cultural heritages. The episode includes heartfelt reunions with family members and the revelation that two of the contestants are distant cousins. "Project Runway" also features a powerful revelation. In its submitted episode, "There's a Pattern Here," contestants design fabrics based on their life stories, and in the process one of them reveals that he is HIV-positive.

What distinguishes these programs is their emphasis on competition. This year, many "Idol" fans think the show could have won with just such an episode: specifically, the emotional show in which the judges used their veto power to save Casey Abrams from elimination. Would that have been the key to victory for "American Idol"? Ryan Seacrest entered that segment in the separate race for best reality host. Let's see what happens.

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-- Tom O'Neil

Photo: Scotty McCreery learns that he is the next American Idol during last season's grand finale. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox

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