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How ‘American Idol’ changed over 15 seasons


Former "American Idol" judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell onstage during the taping of Idol Gives Back held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on April 6, 2008. Credit: Getty Images / Kevin Winter

Well, this is it.

Who among us thought we’d say these words or read them one day, with their grim finality? This is the end of an era, the end of a ride, the end of an obsession, and not just the end of a mere show, unless you understand that this particular show was the most successful and influential one of the 21st century.

This is “American Idol.”

Or was.

How a summer fling 14 years ago turned into a national craze, saved Fox and created some household names in the bargain will someday be the subtext of a deep treatise on mass media and shifting cultural tastes.

No one will read it, of course. We’ll have all moved on. We already have moved on. We tend to do that.

But as we watch “Idol” recede in our rearview mirror, let’s pause to remember why this once mattered so much, and why its decline mattered even more.

First, perspective: As “Idol” ends Thursday, April 7, the franchise ends with a certain degree of pride intact. The days of “superstar” creation are long gone, but not necessarily the audience. About 8 million still tune in — a vastly diminished figure, but a respectable one. In fact, “Idol” was sunk by “fixed” expenses that were established back when 30 million watched. Those lofty costs — like stratospheric judge salaries for genuine superstars like Jennifer Lopez — simply can’t be supported by a “boutique” talent search show, especially now that “The Voice” commands this particular genre.

“Idol” had to end. The miracle is that “Idol” ever even began.

Created by British impresario Simon Fuller, “Idol” was initially expected to be named “Pop Idol,” same as the British hit, and last no more than three months. The tone was to be brittle and acerbic, after the British style of the day, in shows like “The Weakest Link.”

After seeing the “dailies,” or rough cuts, some Fox executives, including reality boss Mike Darnell and scheduling chief Preston Beckman, decided another tone should be emphasized: “Aspirational.”

In a recent interview, Beckman — now retired — recalled, “It’s not like this was the first time there was a talent show on television, and I don’t think that we necessarily did it better than before.”

But in explaining the instant appeal, “I always come back to September 11th. In September of 2001, we all know what happened, and the following summer this show comes on the air and it’s called ‘American Idol.’ It’s a show that says to the country that had just suffered a major tragedy, ‘Join us in finding a superstar. You are in control of this. It’s your vote that’s going to catapult someone from obscurity to fame.’

“And, it was very aspirational.”

Because no one expected ratings glory here, Fox — in retrospect anyway — stumbled into other elements that seemed insignificant in the moment but would prove otherwise. As Richard Rushfield’s excellent 2011 book on the history of “Idol” — “The Untold Story” — lays out, News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch was belligerently resistant to changing the British formula. Someone nevertheless successfully lobbied for the word “American” instead of “Pop.”

Fox executives were unsure how votes could be counted and results announced in just one edition. Darnell famously countered, don’t bother letting the West Coast vote! Beckman instead proposed a “results” edition for the following night. A prime-time schedule-eating behemoth was born.

“Idol” launched June 11, 2002, to an underwhelmed public. That would change. Foremost, there was something about these judges. Paula Abdul was a star, or a former one; Randy Jackson a respected session musician, and then . . . then, there was that other one.

Simon Cowell would quickly establish himself as “Idol’s” utterly unique selling proposition. Viewers at first recoiled from the barbs. Then they embraced them, as some sort of crowdsourced schadenfreude unloaded on the head of a talentless lounge singer.

There were two hosts the first season. One of them, Brian Dunkleman, is now a show business legend — for the wrong reason. The other rode the “Idol” wave all the way to the beach. Ryan Seacrest became the New Dick Clark, a multimedia star in his own right who parlayed the gig into a production company that now controls the many-headed hydra known as “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”-plus-spinoffs.

In one sense, Seacrest was the biggest star minted by “Idol.”

“Idol” then got lucky, and luckier still. Twenty-three million watched Kelly Clarkson become the first “Idol.” The next three seasons would yield two successful stars, one of the “super” variety — Carrie Underwood in season 4.

Then that luck, like a cold wind from the north, shifted. The fifth season picked the wrong winner (Taylor Hicks instead of Chris Daughtry). The sixth season brought out the trolls. Howard Stern launched a vote-for-the-worst campaign, and a vote-for-the-worst website became a major hit, too. There were complaints (and endless stories) about telephone bloc voters. Pristine or at least fresh the first season, “Idol” had turned into the Monster That Ate AT&T by the sixth. People were getting sick of it. By 2007, viewership (37 million) had peaked. The ride was all downhill from there.

“Idol’s” downward trajectory was also shaped by a revolution.

Rushfield, now the editor of popular entertainment website explains: “Think about how much the world has changed since ‘Idol’ came on. There were certainly no blogs, no Snapchat. The term ‘social media’ didn’t exist when ‘Idol’ was born. In its time, it really pushed the limits of audience participation in a way that no other show had ever done, then technology moved past it. That it survived 15 years is amazing.”

“Idol” offered viewers control — a novel concept — but soon enough, technology offered much sexier means of control. Voting from a landline phone felt antediluvian. The iPhone was launched in 2007, which facilitated text voting, but iPhones also tended to replace the TV set — another antediluvian device.

Technology piled up, then piled on. Facebook arrived in 2004, YouTube in 2005. Hulu signaled the advent of streaming TV in 2007. Netflix supercharged that revolution in 2010.

The most significant launch occurred Oct. 7, 2008. That was the day the music really died at “Idol.” Spotify allowed listeners to find their own superstars — established ones like Kanye West, Drake, Brad Paisley, Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber along with dozens, hundreds, of other stars who began their lofty careers over the last 15 years without the blessing of one Simon Cowell.

Nevertheless, as we come to these final hours, let us remember:

The Simon-Paula fights . . . or those “Hollywood Rounds” . . . the crazy, and cruel early rounds.

Let’s remember Fantasia Barrino singing “Summertime,” or Melinda Doolittle singing “Home,” from “The Wiz.”

Best to remember the good stuff, the joy even.

There was a lot of that to go around.

“On just a personal level, I was kind of in awe to be part of something that meant so much to so many people,” says Beckman.

On a personal level, so were we all.


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