Ratings are in a free fall. The judging panel was a $40 million bust. Viewers are exasperated over predictable themes and performances. Culture blogs are flooded with obituaries for American Idol. Confetti rained on Candice Glover Thursday night as she tearfully warbled her coronation song, winning the 12th season of the veteran singing competition. But was she singing at its funeral?
“It’s more like that body at the beginning of Monty Python and the Holy Grail who cries, ‘I’m not dead yet,’” Michael Slezak, senior editor at TV Line and longtime Idol expert, tells The Daily Beast. “Idol is like that leper. It might be mistaken for dead, but it’s not dead yet.”
In the past weeks, headlines blared that American Idol, 12 seasons in and showing its age, is down for the count. “Is the TV juggernaut dead?” asked Yahoo. Grantland wonders whether this is the “worst season ever.” Cinema Blend asks if it’s “time to end” the series altogether. The overarching narrative: Idol is over.
Idol is making mistakes, but they’re not fatal. At most, they’re missteps—albeit missteps that threaten to cut off the life support it’s already on with fans who have watched the show from the very first Kelly Clarkson audition. “When you have a show on three or four hours a week and also expect viewers to spend time voting and downloading music on iTunes, that’s a lot of time these people are spending,” Slezak says. “After 12 years when you give them an escape hatch to get four hours of their week back by not tuning in anymore, they’re going to take it.”
Yes, it’s getting beaten in the ratings by The Voice. The Duck Dynasty finale outdrew one of this season’s episodes. Adding to the indignities, even repeats of The Big Bang Theory have topped Idol airings this season, but “even at its worst days networks would kill to have its ratings,” Slezak says.
The obsession over Idol’s falling ratings seems almost silly. Broadcast TV ratings are falling across the board—that much has been well documented. That’s especially the case when it comes to reality TV. Yes, Idol is down. So is Dancing With the Stars (also down 25 percent), So You Think Can Dance (down 14 percent), and Survivor (down 23 percent).
So it’s not that no one’s watching Idol anymore, or that Idol’s fall is unusual. The narrative we’re seeing is the reaction to Goliath falling, and how unsettling that can be. “People are so used to seeing Idol be this juggernaut that was unbeatable, and now that it’s down, people are like, ‘Oh my God!’” Dave Della Terza, creator of Vote for the Worst, tells The Daily Beast. “Other networks used to be scared to put something against Idol but now that reruns of Bang Theory are beating it, everyone in the media are like, ‘Oh, it must be time to go.’”
“The Voice can only go on for so long as being merely an entertaining show. They have to produce a real artist at some point.”
But the problem goes beyond just numbers. Idol’s problems are well trod. We’ve written about them here at The Daily Beast. There’s a misguided focus on judges over contestants. The theme nights are tired. The contestants sing the same songs year after year. Producers’ behind-the-curtain machinations aimed at manipulating the season’s outcome are becoming increasingly blatant. The singing-to-fluffer ratio per episode—who needs to hear from contestants when Carly Rae Jepsen is there to debut a new single and shameless publicity for the new film Epic is to be shoved down audiences’ throats—is becoming laughable.
These are complaints, however, that Idol viewers have been screaming about for years. So why pile on now? For one, there’s the “enough’s enough” exasperation. “I think people kept waiting for it to get better, thinking they’d hold out for one more season,” says Terza. “But it’s too much of a chore, and nothing’s changing.” Terza plans to shut down Vote for the Worst, after 10 years, following Thursday night’s episode. “It will be the last time I watch American Idol.”
There’s also the issue of oversaturation. American Idol used to be a once-a-year event. Now, with The X Factor, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, The Sing-Off, and countless copy cats, that “Moment Like This” we waited for each year happens incessantly.
Where Idol has The Voice, The X Factor, and all of its rivals beat, however, is that it consistently delivers on its promise of delivering new pop stars, even 12 seasons in. Phillip Phillips’s coronation single from last year, “Home,” was the top-selling Idol single ever, not to mention the successes of the Clarksons, the Underwoods, the Daughtrys, the Hudsons, and the Fantasias of the past. Now, quick quiz: Who won The Voice last season?
“It’s like people win The X Factor or The Voice and enter the Witness Relocation Program,” Dave Holmes, television host and reality-TV recapper, says. “I watched every episode of those shows and I can’t off the top of my head even name the winner.” How can a singing competition be “dead” if it is the only singing competition that creates, you know, singers? The Voice, for all its popularity and ratings, has made virtually no mark on the music industry.
“As long as Idol has that cachet behind it, there’s the opportunity to get back that glory it once had,” Slezak says. Superstars are Idol’s lifeline. “The Voice can only go on for so long as being merely an entertaining show,” says Emily Yoshida, pop-culture editor at Grantland. “They have to produce a real artist at some point.”
Plus, there’s the intriguing promise that, amid the glut of negative headlines, reports are surfacing that Idol will make a slew of changes next season. The entire judging panel will probably be replaced, including stalwart Randy Jackson, who will finally be released from the “dawg pound.” Format changes, theme-night changes, and producer changes are also reportedly being considered.
That’s good news for some people who think Idol has put too much stock in the wrong thing—the judges, chiefly—and not enough in what worked in the first place—contestants with the “It” factor.
“Why are we spending $17 million on Mariah Carey when we need to be spending that money to clear new songs?” Slezak says. “That’s indicative of the biggest problem: spending that money to hear Mariah ramble for four months but contestants are still performing the same Motown, Burt Bacharach, and Celine Dion covers they’ve been singing for the past 12 years. It’s tragic.”
Others have less faith.
“I’m interested to see what format change they think will reinvigorate the audience,” Yoshida says. “But knowing Idol, it’s probably going to be very stupid. They’ll just put more hashtags on everything. Or institute voting through Twitter. Or live performances on Facebook—something very clunky and not entertaining.”
But rest assured. Idol is not dead. Each one of the top five girls, for all the producer puppet strings that were pulled to get them there, are uniquely promising in various genres. Glover’s coronation song, “I Am Beautiful,” seems iTunes-destined; her voice even more fated for radio stardom. Even without any changes, most experts predict a much longer shelf life for Idol than the current media narrative predicts. Holmes could see two or three more years with the show as is, more if they make smart alterations. Yoshida ventures five more cycles, at least.
So stop overreacting about the demise of Idol.
“It’s definitely not dead,” Slezak says. “Does it have a serious illness? Yes. Has it been diagnosed? Yes. Is the patient listening to the diagnosis? Not yet. You can go to the doctor and he tells you that you have diabetes. But if you don’t do anything about it then that’s the problem.”