Reality Check

7 Ways ‘American Idol’ Revolutionized TV

Many people have already written off ‘American Idol’ as a past-its-prime reality TV corpse. Before its season 13 premiere, here’s a reminder of why that’s definitely not true.

Michael Becker/FOX

When American Idol returns Wednesday night, you’d half expect Ryan Seacrest to be a zombie leading a chorus of singing corpses. That’s if you believe the litany of obituaries that have been written for the reality TV juggernaut over the past few years, proclaiming the show “dead” because its ratings have fallen about as quickly as its buzz has. (The surge of rival The Voice certainly hasn’t helped Idol’s “not dead yet!” cries.)

But the show hasn’t flatlined yet. The truth is that after 12 seasons, millions of record sold, and an embarrassing number of hours of watercooler conversation later, American Idol is as essential a pop-culture presence as it ever was. Before the new-ish panel of Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr., Keith Urban, and Randy Jackson begin critiquing teenagers’ warbling, pitchy renditions of “I Have Nothing” Wednesday night, now is the perfect time to remember that—for all the talk of Idol being “dead”—it’s a show that revolutionized television. And still manages to, occasionally, do so.

Here’s a reminder, dawg.

It helped revitalize summer TV

As anyone who sought refuge from the suffocating summer heat in their TV rooms in the ’90s and ’00s can tell you, networks all-but abandoned the idea of putting original, or at least interesting, programming on air during the dog days. But following the lead of CBS, which scored a summer reality TV hit with Survivor in 2000, Fox went all in on unscripted programming by launching Idol.

When it premiered in the summer of 2002, no one had ever heard of Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, or Ryan Seacrest. And everyone had forgotten who Paula Abdul was. By the time Idol aired its season finale that September, 23 million people were tuning in to watch Kelly Clarkson launch her superstar career, Cowell was one of TV’s most valuable personalities, Seacrest was on his way to taking over media altogether, and summer finally had found itself some appointment TV viewing worth watching.

(Of course, the show now airs over the winter. But the sentiment remains the same.)

It legitimized reality talent competitions

Ever since American Bandstand debuted in the ’50s and especially after The Beatles stormed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, television has played an integral part in catapulting music acts into stratospheric levels of success. But it wasn’t until Idol found Kelly Clarkson five decades later that television began creating those very acts. When Idol premiered, it was billed as American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, a concept so tantalizing that it’s shocking it hadn’t really worked before.

Yes, I know Star Search existed. Bear with me.

Was there ever, really, really a time that someone watched Star Search and then expected the winner’s album to appear in stores the next month? The show got singers exposure, sure, but it never had the direct sing-and-sell-records relationship Idol’s producers and its audience have had with its contestants. The show basically existed to provide archive footage for future episodes of Before They Were Rockstars and Behind the Music.

The instant commercial success of Kelly Clarkson, however, and the subsequent fast breakouts (though some have since fizzled) of Fantasia, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, and more raised the bar for what TV talent competitions could accomplish. Being entertaining television was no longer sufficient. If you’re going to brand yourself a star search, well you better discover a star.

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That very notion explains the failures of Idol rivals like The Voice and The X Factor. Sure, they may at times be more fun to watch than Idol, and The Voice gets more viewers. But they’ll only be able to coast for so long without producing a bona fide, blockbuster, Kelly Clarkson-level star.

It unveiled the truth of “live” TV

Part of the fun of watching Idol, especially in those early years, was the live experience of it all: Did they just forget their words? Were they too nervous to hit that note? What the hell did Paula Abdul just say? Still, it was Idol that, albeit unintentionally, confirmed what so many of us already suspected. Not all of what happens on live TV is spontaneous, or even unscripted.

Abdul (naturally it was her) accidentally pulled the curtain back for all of us to see how the Idol magic was made when she, during a 2008 live episode, started critiquing contestant Jason Castro … for a performance he had yet to give. The contestants were each set to perform twice that night, with judges running through quick critiques between the performances. Clearly reading off a paper in front of her, Abdul started telling Castro—again after his first performance—“the second song, I felt like your usual charm, it was missing for me.”

Are all of the judges’ critiques scripted? (Most probably are.) Are those scripts written from rehearsals instead of the actual live performances? (Most probably are.) Did we really care that much once we found out about this? (Most probably didn’t.)

But there you have it. When you watch Cee Lo Green mumble some nonsense about a gothic performance resembling American Horror Story, wallow in the fact that a writer probably fed him the ridiculous line.

It played a major role in diversifying music

Later in its run, Idol’s winners may have become so depressingly predictable that the inevitable outcome was even given an acronym, WGWG: white guy with guitar. But earlier on, circumstances were the complete opposite. In its first six seasons, three of the winners were minorities. Three also happened to be female. Furthermore, they were from a wide range of genres. Kelly Clarkson and Jordin Sparks were purely pop, Fantasia and Ruben Studdard were from the R&B world, while Carrie Underwood was country and Taylor Hicks rock.

Though they didn’t win—and weren’t out during their time on the show—Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert were also integral in diversifying the music industry. Both were gay, and both never hid it. Certainly not Adam Lambert. The fact that both also managed to win over audiences with their talent and become runners up of their respective seasons was monumental for a TV series so obviously (and, occasionally, almost offensively) targeted at conservative America.

There are rumors (which are likely just that) that Idol forces its contestants to remain in the closet while on the show, but there’s no denying that the success of singers like Lambert and Aiken have allowed The Voice, for example, to allow its contestants to be so open about their sexuality.

It proved there’s grace in losing

Some of American Idol’s most famous alumni—Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Katherine McPhee, Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert—didn’t even win the show, proving that the exposure one can get from the competition can be as beneficial as taking the crown itself.

On the opposite end of the talent spectrum are the likes of William Hung. That is to say that Idol pioneered another aspect of reality TV talent competitions that, for better or worse, seems to be here to say: the freak show. “Audition rounds” of competition series now serve to mock the least gifted performers every bit as much as they exist to spotlight potential winners. Some find them highly entertaining. Some find them insufferable. Those people are right.

It kicked off the obsession with celebrity judges

Booking actual music stars to judge TV singing competitions is so common now that it’s hard to remember that it’s not how the genre started. Idol, really, can take credit for that, too. The amount of buzz it got during its search for new judges after the departures of Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul and the surge of renewed interest in the show once Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler were named replacements sent a clear signal to rival shows: celebrities, even if they don’t always translate into ratings, will at least get you a little bit of audience intrigue.

Since Lopez and Tyler first sat in those judges chairs, each for ungodly amounts of money, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and even Kelly Clarkson—to name a few of the dozens—have tried their hands at reality TV judging. The lack of ratings spike for the hiring of a celeb proves that these shows should focus on finding new talent, not giving platforms to established ones. But thank Idol for the cringeworthy joy of watching Britney Spears somnambulantly giving out singing advice on live television.

It proved that viewers are discerning

Idol launched an interesting experiment in 2010. Will viewers enjoy having someone completely unrelated to the music industry on the judges’ panel? No? Even if they’re funny? Producers hired Ellen DeGeneres to judge that season, and fans were not pleased. The TV host/comedienne offered pointless critiques, lacked bite, and her humor failed to translate to a medium where we crave surly ruthlessness from the personalities swilling Pepsi at the judges table. The message: Not even Dory from Finding Nemo will distract us from the task at hand: finding a star.

Similarly, the success of Idol in general made Fox’s rival networks rabid to produce a competitor that could capture the same amount of interest, ratings, and industry cred. They began throwing up any iteration of a talent competition they could think of—who remembers Celebrity Duets? In the end, it took a decade for any network to produce a show that could believably claim to rival Idol’s success: The Voice. We may not think of American Idol viewers as those with the highest taste level, but they have proved over the years with their commitment to the show and their resistance to embrace cheap imitations that they do have standards.

Here’s hoping that when Idol returns Wednesday night, those standards are met.