Fox is going to launch "The Next Great American Band", but the network is primly cautious about whether it has found another hit talent show.
Debuting Friday, "American Band" boasts an impressive group of finalists ranging from heavy metal to soul to bluegrass, and it is from the same producers behind "American Idol."
But are audiences ready for what Johnny Rzeznik, the lead singer of the Goo Goo Dolls and a judge on the new venture, describes as "basically like a big battle of the bands"?
"You just have to cross your fingers," said Mike Darnell, Fox's president for alternative entertainment. The No. 1 status of "American Idol," he said, "doesn't necessarily translate to the band show. ... You can't compare anything to `American Idol."'
Nigel Lythgoe, an executive producer for both series, just wants viewers to give "American Band" a fair shot. He is willing, even eager, to say that "Idol" contestants suffer by comparison to the band hopefuls.
"I can pick out five bands that I can go, `Wow, these guys are tremendous.' You can't do that with the top 12 Idols," Lythgoe said. "We're saying to the public, `Look at this talent and say you don't appreciate it."'
Rzeznik, who joined after being assured he could be a fully independent judge, pronounced himself "blown away" by the skill and spirit of the best contestants. He also appreciated that the contest goes against the grain of today's music industry.
"People are tired of seeing really manufactured artists, who are very beautiful and can sing but don't have their own body of work," he told The Associated Press. "This is a cool process, not put together by a marketing team, a record company."
The artists "just get up there and do their thing. If the audience likes it, they like it. If not, boom, you're gone," Rzeznik said.
Joining Rzeznik on the judging panel are Sheila E. and British-born TV host Ian Dickson, whom viewers will quickly learn answers to the nickname "Dicko" and comes from the Simon Cowell school of barbed commentary.
The show's format is akin to "American Idol" but with a few tweaks. Instead of nationwide tryouts, bands submitted tapes online and about 60 - good, bad and ugly - were invited to audition at Lake Las Vegas, Nevada.
Those contenders are pared to 12 finalists on the debut episode. Thereafter, two bands per week will be voted off by viewers - but without an additional results episode a la "Idol," the audience will have to wait until the following week for the outcome.
Also unlike "Idol," which has showcased pop singers from Gwen Stefani to Barry Manilow, there will be no guest acts on "American Band," produced by 19 Entertainment and FremantleMedia North America.
"This really is about the talent," Lythgoe said. Bands also will perform their own songs as well as cover versions of records.
Given the immense success of "American Idol," which Fox safeguards with just one run per year, why the delay in trying a band version? "Idol" averaged more than 30 million viewers for its performance episodes and, even in year six, remained the bulwark of Fox's schedule.
"No one thought of it," said a rueful-sounding Lythgoe. "It was only last season that I was talking to (fellow executive producer) Cecile Frot-Coutaz and we said, `Why have we never done a band show?' ... This is a perfect fit for `Idol."'
Singers have the spotlight on "Idol" and hoofers are center stage in Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" and ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," but bands have been left in the shadows - by TV and by the music industry, said Fox's Darnell.
"There hasn't been a band of the magnitude of those of the '70s and '80s" in recent years, he said. Whether viewers embrace bands the same way they've rooted for individual performers remains to be seen.
"It's a little harder to get your arms around a group of people," Darnell acknowledged. "Our job is to individualize as much as we can. If there's a great lead singer or a great guitarist, someone with a great story, you focus on them."
In the Dec. 21 finale, three bands will vie for a record contract and, just maybe, an instant career like the ones handed to "American Idol" winners from Kelly Clarkson to Carrie Underwood.
Or not. Dues remain to be paid, predicted Rzeznik.
"Whoever wins this contest, they're still going to have to go out there and prove themselves. Just because they got a running start and television exposure doesn't mean they're going to be playing in arenas right away," he said. "They're going to have to earn that."
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