American Idol has begun its decline
Show's still a ratings powerhouse, but is showing its age
By Andy Dehnart
Updated: 1:36 p.m. ET March 13, 2007
Seven weeks into the sixth season of “American Idol,” one thing is very clear: The phenomenon is over. This is the beginning of the series’ end; the show has peaked. At least it was fun while it lasted.
To be clear, “American Idol”
is not going anywhere. FOX is not going to cancel it; viewers are not going to stop watching tomorrow; Paula Abdul is not going to return to her home planet.
In fact, the show has already been renewed through a ninth season — and possibly two more after that — and it regularly destroys its direct competition in the ratings. The show may even remain at the top of the ratings chart for another season or two.
After 200 episodes, however, there are clear signs of age and fatigue in the series, ones that signal “American Idol”’s time at the top is waning.
Right now, the world is talking about only two things related to “American Idol”: photographs that show a semi-finalist in different states of undress
, and how boring the singers are. Nothing else has captured viewers’ attention.
Antonella Barba’s popularity isn’t surprising, but considering that she was one of the competition’s weaker singers, the fact that she’s become synonymous with this season is very telling. Discussion of Antonella and those photographs has all but consumed the coverage of the show, because there really isn’t anything else to talk about.
While “Idol” has always been personality-driven, which is why it’s more of a reality series than a straight talent show like “Star Search,” the show depends upon more than just allegedly scandalous photographs of a 20-year-old. It needs incredible talent to power a stunning conclusion, and the stunning moments that will inevitably come along the way.
Will anyone really care or be surprised if any one of the 12 finalists go home prematurely? Melinda Doolittle is quite talented, for example, but an undeniable part of her front-runner status comes from the weakness of her competition.
And what kind of conclusion will this season offer? Not much of one, considering how flat and uninteresting this group of 12 is as a whole — and how flat the group of 24 before it was. Perhaps one of the boring finalists will grow to mediocre and then even good, and that person’s growth will be so impressive that America will award that person the title. At best, a third of the top 12 are interesting performers with distinct styles; the others are forgettable.
There’s also been relatively little drama, and the show desperately needs that to remain engaging. The auditions — all 10 hours of them — were rather dull. There were no weirdo standouts, and not really many surprisingly amazing singers, either. The delusional singers who paraded before the judges were just like every other season’s delusional singers.
America, it seems, has run out of both talent and creative attention-seekers. Viewers noticed: From the first night of the auditions to the final “best of the rest” show, almost 10 million viewers tuned out.
The top 24 didn’t give America much more to be excited about. In fact, about six million viewers who watched last Wednesday cared so little about which four people went home first that they didn’t bother to tune in Thursday, giving “Idol” its lowest ratings yet for the season. Again, to be fair, 24.2 million people watched and the show easily destroyed its competition. Those are great numbers, but for “American Idol,” they’re weak. Perhaps most tellingly, “Grey’s Anatomy” drew more viewers when it aired later that night.
Last season, Paula Abdul’s unpredictable behavior at the judges’ table gave the country something to tune in for. After she gave a series of televised interviews while slurring her words and swaying at the beginning of this season, she seemed on track to top herself.
Instead, she’s been relatively normal, praising the singers for things that have nothing to do with their singing and hitting Simon Cowell whenever he says something mean. While both she and Randy have been more honest this year, they’re still overshadowed by Simon Cowell’s blisteringly blunt assessments. Most of the time, the judges seem as bored as we are.
Other signs, too, point toward the series’ slipping appeal. A Billboard analyst predicts that Taylor Hicks’ poorly performing album
may be the first winner’s album to not sell 1 million copies. Season-five winner Taylor’s first single debuted last summer with respectable numbers, but compared to other “Idol” winners and runners-up, his first-week single sales were easily beaten by Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, and Kelly Clarkson.
Someone who lost to Taylor, Chris Daughtry, is topping the charts, and has almost sold 2 million copies of his album. While he (and Carrie Underwood, and others) prove that Idols can still sell records, what’s the point of a talent competition where the losers are better than the winners?
Part of the show’s contract with viewers is that the show is a legitimate “idol”-maker, even if the show’s contract also makes viewers responsible for the outcome. Without winners who succeed, the show’s title will become as irrelevant as that of “America’s Next Top Model,” which produces engaging drama but has yet to produce an actual top model
. If “Idol” can’t bring the drama, which it certainly isn’t doing this year, then FOX better start selecting a nice tombstone, or at least looking for a replacement.
“American Idol” is, of course, far from a failure. It produced an Oscar winner, several Grammys, some CMA awards, hundreds of hours of entertainment, and literally billions of dollars. The show and its cast have also offered enough material to flood radio waves, magazine pages, web sites, cable news shows, message boards, and books with news, gossip, and endless discussion year-round, even when the show is off the air.
Every season, FOX network executives — and executives at other networks — wait to see if the viewership will continue to increase. “American Idol” has defied the odds so far, growing from year to year.
Plenty of other shows, reality and otherwise, start on top and then slide to a comfortable position; they’re watched by a solid group of viewers and are occasionally talked about on a national level. But they are no longer phenomenons. That is now “American Idol”’s destiny.