Last year American Idol experienced its lowest viewership since the show began, down to eight million from a peak of thirty-eight million fourteen seasons before. The Core Media Group, owner of the current Idol, declared bankruptcy and the show is now in hiatus, its production team reviewing options. It begs the question as to what changed, and some context is provided below.
American Idol, and dozens of singing competitions in English speaking TV, trace their roots back to the early days of reality shows and, in particular, New Zealand’s Popstars (1999). Producer, Jonathan Dowling, licensed the format to Australian TV network Screentime, starting a sequel that would involve licenses in more than fifty countries. In the UK, English television producer and entrepreneur Simon Fuller picked up the show and rebranded it as Pop Idol (2001). Under Fuller, we first observe the features that would make the show so successful later on. Viewers could vote for the act they enjoyed most by calling in, texting, logging into the show’s official website, or, if they had a digital TV, they could simply press the red button on their remote control. Audience en- gagement catapulted.
In addition, for the first time ever, breaking new artists happened on TV without the brokerage of the major record labels. In the UK, the winner and runner up of Pop Idol’s first ever season, Will Young and Gareth Gates, respectively, recorded number one singles (Will Young is still an active recording artist and Gareth Gates recorded three successful albums and seven Top 5 singles before moving on to a career in musical theatre). The pattern repeated in later seasons, with winners and runners-up both of Pop Idol and The X Factor, the replacement of Pop Idol in 2004, becoming household names, and sometimes even topping international charts.
Another element first seen in the UK’s Pop Idol was the potential for the judges to be just as entertaining as the candidates. Simon Cowell’s signature catch phrase “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” defined the show. His famously blunt criticism embarrassed talent but helped lesser prospects air alongside the more successful candidates purely for entertainment. British audiences were absolutely hooked on this never before seen combination of viewership interactivity, heart-warming success stories, and brutally honest reviews of less than good singers. It became a Saturday night primetime event for millions in the island before the show travelled abroad.
When the United States became interested, Simon Fuller took his well-proven format there. All elements previously seen on Pop Idol were present in the US version of American Idol, and again the show skyrocketed in popularity. Season one’s finale saw twenty-three million viewers tuning in to witness the judges’ verdicts for the winner of the competition. Like Britain, many American artists got their breaks from performing in the competition, and notably among them Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.
To sustain success, however, the format required follow-through by its talent. This in part has proved the undoing of the show. By 2014, for instance, the debut album of American Idol’s winner, Caleb Johnson, was a dud and only debuted at 24 in the Billboard 200. Winners from mid-way through the show’s life have not experienced the same success of Clarkson or Underwood. If the show becomes less relevant as a curator of talent, momentum must undoubtedly slip.
Another factor is the changing of the judges. To keep the show interesting, a change of guard was necessary. But this, in a format that parades so many different faces of contestants on the screen, has made Idol less familiar. There were questionable choices. Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey bring up ratings only if the chemistry between them is there; their constant bickering, in the event, did not. And Jennifer Lopez probably overdid her praises. Hits and misses, of course, are part of TV programming, but given the calamitous drop in ratings the notion that any celebrity can play the game of A&R has probably been disavowed.
If, as Simon Fuller has said, “there will no doubt be another format of American Idol somewhere down the road”, the question is what will it be. Fuller has suggested that virtual reality may get us closer to the contestant than ever, allowing us to experience the show more intimately than before. Maybe, but finances are tight right now for his Core Media Group and if there were something there already for the taking other competitors would have rushed in. Meanwhile, attention has to be refocused on the public’s emotional connection with the contestants, something that was getting increasingly lost as the seasons went by.
One of the things that made the show work is that it showcased an inordinate number of aspiring vocalists. Before Idol the general public may have been largely unaware of how many vocalists it took to make a star. This is no longer the case, but it taxes interest to watch singers who are not talented trying to make it time after time. In fact, the appeal of Idol lies in our vicarious enjoyment of its format: degrading the attempt. There is something good therefore about the show going off air and looking for new bearings.
By Edward Panek