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Did ‘American Idol’ Call It Quits Too Soon?
January 25, 2016  | By Alex Strachan

It’s Hollywood Week on American Idol, and time to cull the herd on the once dominant TV competition’s final season.

Hollywood Week is traditionally the lamest section in what many cultural observers feel has become one of TV’s most lame annual traditions. Idol has never been in ratings trouble —  at least not in the same way that Utopia was an obvious disaster from the moment viewers decided that, all in all, they’d rather watch reruns of Two and a Half Men than take a flyer on a new reality show that was akin to watching paint dry.

Still, Idol is not the ratings juggernaut it once was, when rival network executives dubbed it “the Death Star” and many of those same cultural observers claimed Idol was ruining TV as we know it.

Those declining numbers weighed in the decision to call it a day on Idol, some 15 seasons after it first aired. No shame there. In today’s TV terms, 15 years is a virtual lifetime.

It’s worth noting, though, that even though last Wednesday’s cumulative audience of 9.2 million viewers pales in comparison to the 22.7 million who tuned into Idol’s original finale on Sept. 4, 2002, is only slightly fewer than the 11.2 million who tuned into that season’s Hollywood Week. (All figures compiled by Nielsen, as reported by medialifemagazine.com.) In the TV numbers game, it’s all too easy to compare apples and oranges. A more fair comparison is the equivalent week from a previous season.

Ratings are not the problem, in other words. Idol carried the night last week against all network competition, in key demos (adults 18-49 and 25-54 alike) and overall viewers.

Part of Idol’s strong performance this season is down to the curiosity factor. Anyone who follows Idol knows this is its last turn in the spotlight, and Ryan Seacrest is there to constantly remind us in case we forget for even an instant. Whoever wins this season will bookend the entire series with Kelly Clarkson, so the pressure is on to find a genuine star-in-the-making, more Carrie Underwood than Lee DeWyze.

In recent seasons there were moments when it seemed Idol had given up any pretense of finding the next Ed Sheeren or Taylor Swift, let alone the new Clay Aiken or Jennifer Hudson. A lot has changed since Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul became household names — but a lot stayed the same, too. And that was part of the problem, a bigger problem perhaps than even gradual ratings decline. The original season in the summer of 2002 featured performance weeks based on Motown, hits of the ‘80s, the Big Band era, Burt Bacharach love songs and judges’ picks. Future seasons incorporated Billboard chart toppers, the Bee Gees, Gloria Estefan, “Clive’s choice” (music mogul Clive Davis) and “Songs from the year they were born.”

Fast forward to 2015 and while the judges and contestants may have been different, the weekly performance shows had a ring of familiarity about them: Motown, songs from the ‘80s, Kelly Clarkson, the Billboard Hot 100, American classics, arena anthems and yet more renditions of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

Of all Idol’s traditions, Hollywood Week (right) may be the worst. It’s traditionally a period of forced humor and awkward situations, when would-be solo artists are forced to perform in impromptu groups, and the 200 or so contestants good enough to survive the early auditions are whittled down to 25 or so singers divided by gender and given a chance to perform before a live TV audience.

The audience vote has taken on a ring of familiarity, too. Computer models have shown an inordinately heavy number of votes from rural Southern states and fewer votes from the West Coast and urban Northeast than one would expect, given their relative population densities. Country artists have an advantage over soul divas and R&B singers, and the music industry in general has always had a standoffish, even contemptuous attitude to Idol and its reality-TV imitators. Established music artists who perform on results shows — not just on Idol but on The Voice, too — are often plugging an album, or else in the middle of a tour. It’s all about driving sales in an increasingly fragmented music scene dominated by YouTube, iTunes, Vimeo, Amazon and Spotify.

Idol has lost what little relevance it ever had in the music industry, and not just because of social media, emerging technology and changing consumer habits.

And yet . . . If the past few weeks of Idol have taught us anything, it’s that Idol is still potent TV entertainment.

It has a warm, sweet-tempered, good-natured vibe, helped in large part by judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr., who seem genuinely interested — and invested in — the singers’ growth as performers, if not artists exactly.

The Voice is the more addictive show, with the better singers, but the mentors on The Voice often seem more interested in their own public persona and the team competitions than the would-be singers they’re mentoring. On The Voice, it’s all about “I’ve won three times,” not  Jordan Smith.

By airing just once a year — The Voice has aired twice a year since its inception in 2011 — Idol tried not to wear out its welcome. Clearly, it didn’t work. With Idol stepping down in May, The Voice could surpass Idol in number of seasons — and winners — in 2018, just two years from now.

As juvenile and annoying as Hollywood Week can be, Idol is still capable of raising spirits and inspiring a new generation of aspiring singers, even if the industry itself is still full of blind alleys and dead ends. There’s something fundamentally appealing about the Star is Born model as the basis for a reality-TV singing competition.

Yes, Idol must be costly to produce — all those live shows! All those arena bookings! — and, yes, the numbers are not what they once were.

The numbers are not that bad, though. And given the mediocrity that passes for scripted TV on so many of the commercial broadcast networks these days, surely there’s still room for the warm, gentle vibe that Idol provides, even when it’s most silly and juvenile.

It may be a minority opinion, but I can’t help but think Fox pulled the pin on Idol too soon. After all, if The Price is Right has been on for 44 seasons, why not Idol?

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