Can ‘American Idol’ Be Saved?

Posted January 17, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

The hot question surrounding the Season 12 premiere of FOX’s American Idol: Can it turn a new leaf on its looming expiration date?

It doesn’t seem to be that long of a run, but American Idol has been around for a full decade. And during the entire time, the hit reality-TV show – resembling a Star Search on steroids – has attracted millions of viewers to its weekly telecasts, even coaxing them to the phone lines to help crown the next superstar. Season one winner Kelly Clarkson started the tradition, becoming the series’s first million-dollar seller despite the first season’s limited budget and small viewing audience.

“On our season we were like kids in camp,” Clarkson told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “Nobody knew what to do. The show was ever-changing every day. They did one season of Pop Idol in the UK, but America is a very different market. They dropped us off in a mall and said find some clothes to wear on national television. I am maybe the closest to white trash you can get. What do I buy? White pants, I guess? I definitely looked like a cocktail waitress.”

Since her crowning achievement on the show, the Fort Worth, Texas native with her glowing country pride transitioned to pop stardom and has cranked out a series of platinum records and hit singles. And after ten years of being away from the Idol stage, Clarkson continues to ride the pop charts, with 2012’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” being the most successful single in her entire catalog. She ended 2012 with a 17-track compilation documenting her Top 40 endurance.

Not too many Idol winners (or contestants) have experienced such a feat. You can count them on one hand, actually. According to 2012’s numbers, Carrie Underwood, the winner of season four, has sold over 13 million copies in total record sales, even surpassing Clarkson’s 12-million record. But now in its twelfth season, with a new slate of judges on the panel (quirky hip-hop personality Nicki Minaj, Whitney Houston apprentice Mariah Carey, country-pop heartthrob Keith Urban), analysts are wondering if the Idol machine is reaching its final lap. Most of the media’s attention has been focused on the rumored feud between Minaj and Carey, and wondering if the new judges are able to sustain the show’s momentum. But even the new starpower isn’t enough to guarantee breakthrough success for those competing. And it is that migraine of a concern that troubles the brand’s posterity.

But it’s not the only thing hindering Idol‘s pathway of survival.

CHART POWER: Measuring up, each of the winners on American Idol have had mixed results in their post-Idol seasons. Chart info compiled by HIFI.

1. If Seacrest leaves, Idol may be doomed.

Word leaked out today that executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, the brains behind the brand, told TMZ that if Seacrest chants “Seacrest out” for the final time, it may be over for Idol. “Ryan Seacrest drives the entire program,” Lythgoe said. “He’s not on an earpiece or anything. He’s not beholden to anybody. He controls the show. He’s really important.”

Over the years, Seacrest’s salary has mushroomed. But in 2012, his annual purse take-ins was in question when Idol‘s numbers dropped in ratings. He earned $15 million a year in the latest three-year contract extension with FOX. With Simon Fuller now away from the negotiation table after sources announced he was no longer part of the show , Seacrest may be looking at other options. Recently, the rumor mill went abuzz when the Dick Clark protege was mentioned by NBC execs as a potential successor to Matt Laurer on the Today Show. Seacrest is still a relatively busy feller, thanks to his E! network investments, his journalism work during the 2012 Summer Olympics (show on FOX’s rival, NBC) and his hit syndicated radio show. If Seacrest leaves, Idol could be on the cusp of a major collapse.

2. No panelist has proven to be more enigmatic than Simon Cowell.

When the highly-opinionated Simon Cowell left the judge’s chair for good in 2010, no one – not even Steven Tyler – could feel the void. Tyler killed all expectations of a Tyler comparison when he told Craig Ferguson in May 2012 that he thought Cowell was “mean.” It’s actually that bit of “meanness” that’s missing from the show. And even though the show’s winners in recent years have been struggling to make it in a digital-driven, piracy-filled, talentless pop world, much of the blame on Idol‘s misfortunes have been centered around Cowell’s disappearance act. Of course, the popular judge went on to bring his European import to the U.S., creating an open market for more competition shows. He’s doing okay on The X-Factor, but his Idol reign was what actually propelled the show into the history books. Now that he’s gone, the show’s producers have been using any and every tactic to wow fans back to the show. Newer gimmicks, flashier graphics, superstar cameos, celebrity guest judges, online voting, ineffective Ford Focus music videos, instant mp3 downloads and the creepy Idol mansion (which feels like a very bad mash-up of Big Brother and The Real World) have all been worked into the Idol franchise and has done very little to invigorate it. Viewers are wondering what will they do next.

3. What works on the TV screen doesn’t always translate well off the screen.

Okay, the voting process for Idol‘s competition has been an ongoing subject of controversy from day one. And with every passing season, Idol executives have said anything that would help build up the confidence of voters. Nothing was as explosive than when season 8 winner Kris Allen knocked shoe-in favorite Adam Lambert out of the top spot to win Idol competition. The controversy was so big that it was even dubbed by the blogosphere as “Textgate,” due to show sponsor AT&T giving out free cell phones and texting services to Allen’s supporters at organized parties in his home state. The company even trained the participants on how to “power text.” Lambert didn’t win the competition, but he won in record sales, outselling Allen by a wallop (Lambert: 1,117,000; Allen: 367,000, RCA dropped Allen last year from their roster, Lambert is still signed). Except for the texting scandal, the same situation applies to the Ruben Studdard v. Clay Aiken argument. Aiken, season 2 runner-up, has outsold Studdard by two million units.

In some cases, runner-ups and finalists like Chris Daughtry (frontman for rock band Daughtry) and Jennifer Hudson have actually outperformed Idol winners.

While winners win with votes, the real test of the crowned champion is tested in the marketplace. And everyone knows, once you enter the real world, it’s a totally different game of chess to play. Those millions of voters hardly translates into record sales, especially in the cases of Lee DeWyze and Kris Allen. And don’t get too excited about last year’s winner Phillip Phillips: Despite his popular song, “Home,” he has yet to reach the one-million market and actually trails season 5 finalist Elliot Yamin in total record sales.

RATINGS WAR: For the last two years, American Idol has experienced a major dip in TV ratings. Can 2013 be the show’s comeback year?

4. Let’s face it, folks: Idol is old.

It seriously hurts to see the 60-and-up in Hollywood acting half their age. Usually this happens when the star is in denial of the aging process. TV shows aren’t human, but they do experience the same dilemma. And when it’s time to bow out, oftentimes they overstay the visit. Idol is now celebrating its 12th year anniversary and is one of the longest-running shows on television. Despite its success of being number one for seven consecutive seasons, the show is reaching twilight status. And with newer shows on the air, such as The X-Factor, The Voice and dozens more, the show is suffering from an overabundance of rip-offs. All of this leads us to number 5 (see below).

5. Over-saturation in the reality-TV talent show marketplace shows Idol‘s weaknesses.

Most of the time competition is good. It builds muscle. It creates invigoration. It fuels adrenaline. And with the competition now perplexed with shows that work (The X-Factor, The Voice) and shows that don’t work (ABC’s Duets, The Sing-Off), Idol is slowly becoming the overgrown karaoke show.

6. The newer judges are really in it for their own careers.

Who wouldn’t turn down a steady job…or something as attractive as American Idol? Steven Tyler didn’t turn it down, and he claimed he never even watched the show. It pays well, we know that. But these kind of shows also has proven to be a career boost for the celeb judges. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine saw a major boost in record sales with his stint on the rival show The Voice thanks to 2011’s “Moves Like Jagger.” Levine’s small screen partner-in-crime Christina Aguilera also got a co-headlining credit on the pop hit. Shelton’s career has also seen a boost in sales due to his involvement on the show. Britney Spears, who appears on Cowell’s USA version of X-Factor, also experienced an up-tick in sales when her single, “Scream and Shout,” rocketed into the Top Ten. Her last Top Ten hit, “I Wanna Go,” appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2011. If one thing can be learned from the reality-TV show cycle, it is that the show is a major marketing boost for the judges’ creative output, even if the same results don’t necessarily translate well upon the show’s contestants.

7. High-priced divas don’t necessarily work.

Entertainment Weekly wrote an insightful piece of commentary on American Idol‘s vulnerability.

“It’s interesting that the only judge shakeup in American Idol or The X Factor history that ever prevented a ratings decline wasn’t by hiring some high-priced diva, but a celebrity who lacked any real music industry experience,” referencing the Ellen DeGeneres-factor, who helped give the show an extra boost in viewers.

Let it go on record that Idol suffered a 17 percent drop in ratings in 2011 and a scary 24 percent drop the year after. added “if any new judge drives viewers to Idol this evening, it probably won’t be Carey or Minaj, despite all the headlines over their supposed feud.” For some reason, with the influx of country pop stars, the recent winners on Idol having a country/folk background (Scotty McCreery, Phillip Phillips) and Blake Shelton’s hit run on The Voice, is counting on Keith Urban to save the show.

Yeah, good luck with that.


What’d I Say is a public opinion series focusing on recent events featuring commentary from our team of skillful writers and guest bloggers. The opinions expressed at this forum are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the parent company HiFi Magazine.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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