It’s hard to know quite how to react to today’s news that American Idol will end its historic run on Fox next season after fifteen years on television. For at least ten of those years, the show tapped into the white hot center of the country’s pop culture conversation and dominated the ratings in every monetizable demographic.
But somewhere between the coronation of Phillip Phillips and the coronation of Candice Glover, the bloom started to wilt. Perhaps it was earlier than that, perhaps a little later. But the decay is undeniable, evident in the morning-after ratings reports, in the dwindling amount of online chatter, in the increasingly lackluster roster of superstars willing to devote time to the show.
What happened? A variety of things, none singularly responsible. For a while, American Idol was the only game in town, unless you were willing to go across the pond for the Simon Cowell shows that launched this 21st century trend. Copycats spawned copycats, which preyed on the original.
Meanwhile, the novelty of launching everyday Americans into superstardom wore off as all novelties do, coinciding with the rise of YouTube and other low-rent channels for budding talent to get its start. The judges’ barbs, the contestants’ runs, the Seacrest’s charms went from cutting-edge to…well, no longer cutting the edge.
To their credit, Fox and the show’s producers tried to keep the flame ablaze, but to little avail. Superstar executives like Jimmy Iovine and Scott Borchetta were supposed to provide wisdom and insight to the flailing contestants, but instead they filled the Simon Cowell curmudgeon role with none of Cowell’s occasional charms. Superstar judges like Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj pulled focus from the contestants, a market which The Voice cornered before Idol ever could. And the small production changes felt like temporary facelifts rather than serious reconfigurations, which the show probably needed if it wanted to survive in a much more crowded landscape.
I’ve watched bits and pieces of this season and found it more tired than ever. Flashes of promise early on gave way to mediocre song choices, unconvincing arrangements, uncomfortable confrontations and forced shtick from the sometimes-astute judging panel. Fox’s decision to restrict the show to one night per week led to awkward eliminations and artificial drama, even as it eliminated some of the fluff in which the show indulged at its peak. The trimmed budget means the sets look sloppier and the band sounds tinnier. David Hasselhoff and Kenny Loggins were the musical guests during one March episode. DAVID HASSELHOFF AND KENNY LOGGINS. Such nonsense would have been ridiculed five years ago. Now, the show’s viewers simply sighed.
The end of American Idol doesn’t foreshadow the end of singing competitions on television (yet). It’s safe to assume it doesn’t foreshadow the end of Ryan Seacrest’s career on television. In fact, perhaps the saddest thing about today’s news is that the end of American Idol doesn’t foreshadow anything in particular. That’s why it’s time for the show to end. For all that it’s done for television, the music business, the frosted tips industry, Brian Dunkleman’s emotional health and the millions of people who were inspired, moved or educated while they watched, American Idol will go out as it rarely was: quiet.
Bonus: Three of the best performances I saw on Idol.