Another year, another replacement on the American Idol judging panel. This time, it is the turn of Harry Connick Junior, who is set to join Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban for season 13. But, with rumors that the show’s ratings are entering an interminable decline, we pose the question, has the American Idol format grown tired, limbering on like a rabid dog that is in desperate need of euthanizing?
American Idol’s Beginnings
Flippant analogies aside, American Idol has been around for quite some time. The show’s inception actually started back in 2001, in Britain, with Simon Fuller taking the helm of Pop Idol. Simon Cowell was but a mere judge, and Nigel Lythgoe was an unknown, unseen producer, lurking in the wings. The show was then renamed American Idol and flown across the pond, along with the acerbic wit and deadpan putdowns of Mr. Cowell.
The show was universally praised, generating unrivalled ratings and considerable publicity. Idol rapidly became the biggest program on American television, holding off competition for seven consecutive years.
There were several reasons for this phenomenon. Firstly, Simon Cowell was somewhat of an anomaly for the general public. The American people had not encountered the type of malign, no-nonsense rhetoric that Cowell frequently hurled towards the masses of unsuspecting singing wannabes. The man was a verbal Tommy gun of snide comments and pithy one-liners, cutting down the naive, the innocent and the weak.
As with many popular trends, shock had managed to generate the initial enthusiasm for the show, and a media frenzy soon followed. Just take a look at the debauchery of Miley Cyrus’ performance, at the Video Music Awards. A significant proportion of viewers claim to have been offended by the vulgarities of the female singer’s half-naked wobbles, on stage, even leading to the submission of a number of formal complaints. However, the “shock factor” is one of the biggest sellers in the entertainment industry, and has the potential to make or break a celebrity.
Harry Connick Junior is a fantastic singer and entertainment personality. The judge has served as a mentor on the show a number of times, and has also made live performances. Unfortunately, if the American Idol team were hoping for Connick Junior to single-handedly inspire the change that the show so desperately needs, they are very much mistaken. Substituting panel members has shown not to work in the past; what Idol producers have yet to grasp is that it is the show’s format that has become tired, not the judging panel.
When the show first aired, the overall format was fresh and invigorating. American Idol was a modern-day take on some of the older variety shows, whose popularity had waned during the 1970s. Fuller had managed to inject all the glitz and glamour and sensationalist grandstanding that was enough to excite its core demographic.
The Ratings Cliff
Ultimately, however, every dog has its day. American Idol had a tremendous run and, despite its declining ratings, still manages to garner a sizable viewing audience.
However, season eleven perhaps signals the slow, but steady, demise of the reality television giant, with the average viewership plummeting to below 20 million. This figure sounds impressive, but it was the lowest that Idol had seen, since 2003. Season 12 followed in a similar vein, with a 24% drop from season 11, highlighting a show well and truly on the rocks.
An Aging Idol Audience
A number of theories have been put forward to explain the decrease, including competition from Simon Cowell’s The X Factor, as well as The Voice. Ultimately, however, American Idol has become a stale format and has not managed to evolve. What was a pioneering idea in 2001/2002 has now started to wear thin. Just take a look at the average age of American Idol’s viewing audience, which now lies at 51.2.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Senior Vice President of Research Brad Adgate claims that the aging viewership signifies a worrying trend:
“If the show got 10 million viewers and the median age was 32, I don’t think advertisers would mind that. But it’s become your grandparents’ American Idol.“
The Judging Panellist Scapegoat
Idol seems to have made a concerted effort to steer its already sinking ship away from the rocks. Replacing some of the panel members with celebrity singers, such as Lopez and Urban, has been an obvious attempt to solicit the attention of a younger generation.
Ultimately, these piecemeal tactics have failed. The reason being is that the show has remained in stagnant roots. The logos, the color schemes, audition styles and live performance shows have not undergone any significant redesigns, for which Idol is being severely punished. People are not interested in seeing the same thing over and over again. Take a movie blockbuster franchise as an example. If Die Hard had continued to produce an endless series of films that replicated a gung-ho cop running around Nakatomi Plaza, performing the same stunts, the viewing audience would eventually rebel. The same can be said for television programming.
If it is even still possible for American Idol to reclaim its past glory, a radical shakeup is needed. With competition from The X Factor and The Voice, Idol creators can no longer rest on their laurels. Replacing the judging panel has not worked successfully on past occasions, why should the same trick work for season 13? Personally, I think Harry Connick Junior’s a great addition, but until the show’s architects realize it is the show’s format that has become tired and stale, ratings will continue to slide into the abyss.
James Fenner (Op-Ed)