As it ends, an appreciation of ‘American Idol’
It was great television, with big personalities and even bigger voices
April 7, 2016
Once, at the height of “American Idol’s” popularity, a Fox rival was asked about a new show launching in the same timeslot as “Idol.”
“Does it matter?” he joked with a resigned sigh.
“Idol” wasn’t the highest-rated program of all time, but it was the most dominant. At a time of great transition in television, when ratings declines for the broadcast and cable networks began to accelerate and viewers began turning to other media to get their entertainment fixes, “Idol” remained appointment viewing.
During the 2008-’09 season, “Idol” finished 72 percent ahead of the No. 2 show on broadcast among adults 18-49, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” the largest advantage of all time. The singing competition posted an unprecedented eight straight seasons as TV’s No. 1 show in the demo.
Tonight “Idol” will air its series finale. It’s a long time removed from those record numbers—last week “Idol” drew a quarter of the audience it did during its last season at No. 1 in 2010-’11—but it’s still one of Fox’s top shows.
Why cancel it, then? The show was starting to look like a parody of itself. The talent has thinned over the years; it’s been a while since we’ve seen anyone as talented as Phillip Phillips, let alone a Carrie Underwood.
The judges’ critiques have become tired. Ryan Seacrest’s shtick has grown thin. And ratings fell to series lows last year. They’ve revived slightly this season amidst a wave of nostalgia.
But it’s not these later years of “Idol” that will be remembered. It’s the early ones.
There had been singing shows before “Idol,” of course, yet Fox did three very smart things to set the show apart.
First, it hired Simon Cowell as one of the judges, which was bloody brilliant. He gave the competition an edge other reality shows lacked, making it stand out.
Second, it launched the first season during the summer, opposite minimal competition. There “Idol” had a chance to learn and grow, and by its first-season finale, it was a hit.
Third, it limited the program to one cycle per season. This may have been the biggest key to its long-term dominance.
Most other reality shows, such as “Survivor,” “The Voice” and “Dancing with the Stars,” air two cycles per season.
That’s too much. The show begins to feel familiar and dull, and viewers wander away. That never happened with “Idol” during its first nine seasons.
The incredible talent of early contestants such as Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson (alas, the men have never pulled equal weight) also helped “Idol” stay relevant throughout the year, as contestants went on to launch albums and acting careers.
And “Idol” dominated the airwaves like nothing ever had before. The other networks moved their shows out of its way. Younger-skewing NBC and ABC in particular suffered against “Idol” on Tuesday and Wednesday nights for years.
Fox used “Idol” smartly as a platform to launch new shows. Most of them burned bright for a while, then fizzled when they moved to another night—R.I.P., “The Wanda Sykes Show,” “Lie to Me,” “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?,” etc.
The network itself also rose to prominence, winning eight straight seasons among adults 18-49 on the power of “Idol.” It earned respect after years of struggling to prove it belonged with the Big Three.
It’s been a while since the other networks moved their best shows to avoid facing “Idol” or ran repeats on the final nights of May sweeps rather than waste originals against an “Idol” finale.
But “Idol” will be remembered as one of the most influential shows of all time on broadcast. That’s an impressive legacy.
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