American Idol HOF Speech
American Idol has a knack for defying expectations. A sleeper summer hit, the reality series had no big stars and little pre-launch buzz. Prior to its debut on Fox in June 2002, the press saw nothing new in its familiar musical-variety format and shrugged it off as just another Star Search.
But American audiences saw it differently and flocked to Idol by the tens of millions to watch judge Simon Cowell throw barbs, share in contestants' emotional backstories and watch tomorrow's pop stars get discovered.
Ten seasons later, and still television's most-watched series, American Idol joins the B&C Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2011.
Idol's story is well told. After facing rejection from multiple networks, creator Simon Fuller found a home at Fox. The network was looking for inexpensive summer programming, and Idol's aspirational nature played well to an audience looking for feel-good entertainment in the wake of September 11.
Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative programming, began pushing for the project internally and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch eventually did too. After its predecessor Pop Idol took off in the U.K. and made a star out of the sharp-tongued Cowell, Fox committed to the series with Cowell signed on as a judge.
"We knew we had to have him," Darnell says of Cowell, who would be joined on the judges' panel by singer/choreographer Paula Abdul and music producer Randy Jackson.
When American Idol premiered June 11, 2002, 9.9 million viewers watched. By the time Kelly Clarkson belted "A Moment Like This" to win the first crown, the audience had grown to a whopping 23 million.
"We knew we had something special because of the trend of the numbers," says executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America. "Even though the numbers weren't as big as they became subsequently, in terms of the buzz and the impact and the talkability and all of those things, it was a success. In our own little world, we never envisioned that it would one day hit those 30-plus million viewer figures."
But hit that it did. The ratings took off in season two, averaging nearly 22 million viewers. In season four, it became the most-watched series on TV, a mark it's maintained since, surpassing All in the Family for consecutive seasons at No. 1. Its ratings dominance earned it the nickname the "Death Star," and rival networks have defensively scheduled accordingly.
"There's a certain relatability that Idol offers," says host Ryan Seacrest of its ratings success. "Who hasn't at one time or another dreamed of being famous? And to be able to watch someone else's dream come true makes for compelling television. It's a rags-to-riches story in the truest sense and explains, at least in part, the Idol phenomenon."
Adding to its effect on the television landscape is the fact that American Idol entered the TV universe at a time when cable was eroding broadcast's share of the audience (and accolades). New technology, such as TiVo, allowed viewers to fast-forward through commercials, undermining the networks' business model.
But Idol was DVR-proof, as viewers tuned in live each week to see who would be eliminated. Audition clips, such as those of Larry "Pants on the Ground" Platt, went viral. And unlike music competition series before it, like Making the Band, Idol produced bankable stars in winners such as Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry. Even eliminated contestants have gone on to big things, led by Jennifer Hudson's Acadamy and Grammy awards.
Idol's achievement is not just its track record of discovering stars, however. It is that while not reversing the declining fortunes of broadcast TV, Idol proved that in an era of fragmentation, there is still such a thing as a mass audience. Its broadness was thanks to its multigenerational appeal-it was a show the entire family could watch together, a quaint idea in the decade of the 2000s.
"Idol was the first of a new breed of entertainment show," says creator/executive producer Fuller, CEO of XIX Entertainment. "The purity of the format, our integrity and the core theme of giving this incredible opportunity to real people with authentic journeys, combined with empowering and respecting our audience, is something everyone can relate to.
It's not far off to say that Idol made Fox what it is today, which in the 2001-02 season didn't have a program crack the top 20. In season three, Idol was the most-watched show in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic, and gave Fox the win in the demo for the next eight consecutive seasons. It helped launch scripted hits such as House, Bones and Glee, now rating draws in their own right.
But even Idol was not immune to viewer fatigue. In its sixth season, ratings started to drop off and steadily declined for the next few years. It went through a series of judging-panel changes-songwriter Kara DioGuardi joined as the fourth judge in season eight, which was Abdul's last. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres replaced Abdul in season nine, but by the end of that season, DeGeneres, DioGuardi and Cowell were gone.
Who would fill out the panel with Jackson, the sole remaining original judge, was one of TV's most closely followed stories, and when Fox finally announced the addition of singer/actress Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler in September 2010, it generated buzz.
But Idol was still losing its biggest star in Cowell and coming off a season that produced no breakout talent. While still the most-watched series on TV, its ratings showed vulnerability to ABC's Dancing With the Stars. Idol seemed destined to fall off a cliff in season 10. It had had a good run, but the end it seemed, was near.
But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance. Remarkably, in season 10, it didn't just stave off further ratings declines, it reversed the downward trend. The season finale was its most-watched since 2008, averaging 31 million viewers, up 22% over 2010's 25.5 million. Thanks to new judges and better talent, Idol got its groove back.
"The truth is, if it hadn't been for Simon's departure, none of us would have ever had the guts to do something so radical," Frot-Coutaz says. "If something is working, then you kind of don't touch it."
While season 10's performance by all accounts exceeded expectations, Idol still faces challenges to remain relevant. The saturated music-competition space-filled with newer entries such as The Voice and The X Factor-means more shows fishing into the same talent pool. And though early ratings for Cowell's X Factor prove it's no Idol, its softer-than-expected launch triggered another round of speculation about the genre's health. Though if last season is any indication, Idol's staying power is not to be underestimated.
"It has grown from a big television show, which it is, to a phenomenon, an American institution," Darnell says. "I think it's equal to the Super Bowl and the Oscars, where people proved to us last year that they want to love it. Like Dick Clark's New Year's [Rockin] Eve, it still has that emotional attachment. If you give them a good season, they'll come back." -Andrea Morabito