Gone but never entirely forgotten, “American Idol” will return next season on the ABC schedule, the network announced Tuesday morning.
In a pair of statements that don’t quite begin to address the most obvious question — but WHY? — the ABC chiefs who engineered the comeback said “ ‘American Idol’ is a pop-culture staple that left the air too soon,” per Channing Dungey, president, ABC Entertainment. Disney Media Networks co-chair Ben Sherwood added, “ ‘Idol’ is an entertainment icon, and now it will air where it belongs, in ABC’s lineup of addictive fan favorites alongside ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and ‘The Bachelor.’ America, get ready for the return of a bigger, bolder and better-than-ever ‘Idol.’ ”
The statement added that host and judges would be announced at “a later time.” There were reports last week that Ryan Seacrest would return — logical, of course — but none seemed to address the logistics behind the logic: When would he find time to do it? Seacrest is now co-host of “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” one of Disney’s most important TV franchises.
Seacrest (who also just extended his radio contract) may be an especially hard worker, but unless Disney and ABC have figured out how to create a hologram of him, this might be a stretch even for him. Then, there’s this intriguing possibility: “Idol” could originate from New York near “Live’s” West Side studio. (ABC did not address the venue question.)
ABC was short on other details. The new “Idol” — ostensibly the 16th season — will arrive sometime during the 2017-18 season. If tradition holds, that means “Idol” will be back on the air as soon as next January.
In addition, the “bigger/bolder-than-ever” claim offers some intrigue. Under Fox, “Idol” was never anything but bigger-and-bolder-than-ever. As seasons built upon prior seasons, Fox and Fremantle Media/19 Entertainment made “Idol” more of an event almost to paper over the increasingly elusive goal of creating a bona fide “superstar.”
But “Idol” was always about hype and no reason not to recall some of that: This was the monster that ate prime time, and reconfigured the entire television landscape during those torrid early seasons on Fox. It launched the careers of three genuine stars — Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson — and built a parallel music industry measured in albums sold (over 60 million) and digital downloads (260 million).
Change came quickly: Music consumption habits forged by the digital revolution increasingly turned “Idol” into a charming anachronism, then an irrelevant one. Young viewers turned away while older viewers remained — along with the fixed expenses, which were enormous. Judges’ salaries alone increased exponentially each year, while viewership dropped. But Fox was locked into the cycle, which became a death spiral. By the time it left the air April 7, 2016, “Idol” was bloated and prohibitively expensive.
Does ABC have other ideas about how to avoid Fox’s predicament? Will the judging panel still be composed of superstars looking for a quick paycheck between world tours? Will social media be deployed in some new or imaginative way? (Creator Simon Fuller was believed to have envisioned a new “Idol” almost entirely built around social media.)
What? How? Why? When? Who?
The questions remain. But the monster is back.