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In Praise of American Idol
May 15, 2015  | By Alex Strachan

It had to happen. Even Bonanza and Gunsmoke had to call it quits eventually.

Even so, breaking news from the network upfronts that next season of American Idol  — the show’s 15th — will be its swan song came as something of a shock, if not a surprise. TV is, always has been --  and as long as there are still such things as broadcast networks, a clearly defined fall season and annual upfronts -- about ratings. And the truth is that Idol’s ratings have been on a steady slide of late, even as production costs rose and it became that much harder to find a breakout singing sensation. Gone are the days when Idol was part of the national conversation, when it annihilated the competition in the ratings and rival network executives dubbed it “the Death Star.”

Time has a way of catching up even to TV’s most avidly watched, talked-about programs, though. Just as video killed the radio star, Netflix, Amazon Prime and, to a lesser extent, The Voice killed American Idol.

Idol had its moments, though. Who, among the near-record audience that tuned in to see Kelly Clarkson (right) crowned Idol’s original winner on Sept. 4, 2002 — just a week shy of 9/11’s first anniversary — can forget the innocence, optimism and unrestrained joy of that moment when an unknown high-school choir singer from Burleson, Texas became a cultural talking point?

Even then, Idol was easy to lampoon. And many did, from music industry insiders who chafed at the show’s contrived format — “Hollywood Week,” “Disco Night,” and “Songs from the Year They Were Born,” among other horrors — to the late-night comedy shows, which parodied everything from the horror-show auditions to the incessant bickering between the judges. Simon Cowell cemented his reputation across America as the Snooty Brit, and for a moment there being a snooty Brit became cool.

For all the brickbats, though, something undeniable was happening. There had been TV talent shows, to be sure, but nothing like this. By the time Ruben Studdard edged Clay Aiken for the second Idol crown and then-unknowns Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, and Jennifer Hudson became bona fide music stars in their own right, Idol had earned a place at the forefront of popular culture. It was the classic rags-to-riches story, A Star is Born, reborn as a weekly reality-TV show, and audiences tuned in in droves. Never mind that the singing was often off-key, the show played to the heart of the American Dream — that anyone, from virtually anywhere, can became a star if they have a little talent, work hard enough and are liked well enough that ordinary, everyday viewers will pick up the phone and vote them through to the next round.

Don’t discount the effect of 9/11 in those early years. Optimism was in short supply. Innocence was passé and, worse, considered to be naive. The mainstream audience needed hope, and a TV show they could rally behind. Idol didn’t have to deal with The Voice yet, or America’s Got Talent and the dozens of pale imitators that came along later. Nothing dampens enthusiasm in an original quite like dozens of imitations.

Over time, the public mood changed, and the culture changed with it. On June 11, 2002, the night   Idol first aired, there were dozens of cable channels, but nothing like there are today. Idol dawned in a time before Twitter, before Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram reached into every home. The Voice has used social media to much better effect, but The Voice had the advantage of debuting after music downloads became more important than CD sales, and iTunes and YouTube became the easiest, fastest way to break a new act.

Idol wore out its welcome eventually, as all TV phenoms do. Idol still has a passionate, vocal following — the youngsters who crowd the Idol stage when their favorites perform, and the fans at home who continue to tweet, text, and phone their votes as if their very lives depended on it.

Just as it has become harder for Idol to generate music sales, it has become harder for Idol to generate the kind of ratings needed to keep it afloat. A lot went wrong with Idol over the years, but a lot was right, too.

When Idol throws its last confetti shower and dims the stage lights one last time in May of next year, it will leave behind more than a few fond memories for those who were there from the beginning. Not many TV shows can say that.

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