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I can’t believe the top 8 takes the stage tonight, my favorite contestant has already been eliminated (no, not Pia), and I still haven’t done a post about American Idol 2011, the worlds greatest contest with going on about $10B in revenue in its run.  Truly, the show has been revolutionary.

And for the first time this year, evolutionary.  In its 10th year, the venerable contest franchise got a makeover.  Nastiness and staged moments replaced by coddling and  good karma.  But why?  Because America can’t take it anymore?  Simon’s brand of snide doesn’t fit the times?  Hardly.

If you know the show, you know it’s about the Benjamins…not that there’s anything wrong with that; on the contrary, this change is good for everyone – producers, contestants, and audience.

In past years raw talent was often sacrificed in favor of good television as the producers tweaked the elements mercilessly to maximize ratings.   The result:  tons of ad revenue, relatively anemic record sales.

This year, driven partly by the influx of spotlight-sucking hosts who can carry the ratings on their own, the producers smartly jacked up the star-creating power by distilling the best talent, backing them early and often with professional (read TOP) coaching, and singing their praises instead of bruising their egos on stage.

Obviously only time will tell if this crop is really as talented as they seem – previous top 8 survivors included Tim Urban, Kristy Lee Cook, Ace Young, Scott Savol, John Peter Louis, and Carmen Rasmusen, none of whom would likely have made this year’s Hollywood Week much less the Top 8 – or if the new formula adds up to more dollars, but one thing is clear:  the people behind the show executed a daring and needed makeover, leveraging the hand they were dealt to impressive effect.

The lesson for contest creators is this: if your program is in it’s forth or fifth year, participation is still strong but growth has slowed, consider shaking things up a bit.  Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater but use your creative team to find smart ways  to tweak the formula to keep it fresh for your audience and give the media new reasons to talk about you.  Will your customers miss the old format?

Let’s put it this way:  do you miss Sanjaya?

ps – My 6 year old daughter begged for this:  A shout out to her 2011 idol James Durbin.  Dude has a sick voice.  NEVER GOING HOME.

Update:  Based on last night’s performances, it’s clear that there was a meeting last year where someone, I’m guessing Jimmy Iovine, stepped up and said, “Look, if we pick only the best talent and spend 4 months convincing America that they’re awesome future stars instead of that they’re all a bunch of wannabes, we’ll all do better.  And by the way if you get some sexy star power on the judging panel ratings won’t suffer.”  I mean, Simon would have beat Paul McDonald down and out of the competition long ago…and after last night I have to say rightly so.