Fox began airing American Idol in June of 2002 and for eight straight years it was the number one rated TV show in America. It so outdrew the competition that the other networks pretty much gave up trying to counter program it. But now it is fading fast and even it’s newer rival The Voice is having a hard time drawing the younger audience advertisers crave. Bill Carter suggests that this is just one more example of too much of a good thing.
It is hardly the first time television has burned out a genre through mass imitation and overexposure. Networks rode westerns into the ground. They exhausted the audience with singers trying variety shows. At one point, almost every night had a newsmagazine. And, most famously, ABC ran the sprockets off its game show hit “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” with four episodes a week at its height, leading to a plunge in ratings and its relegation into syndication.
But I think there is something more to it than that. Idol arrived at that particular moment in American culture when our feelings were still raw from 9/11. The country needed a little old-fashioned simple entertainment in which multiple generations could share an experience. Simon Cowell, the Svengali behind Idol was smart enough to choose singers in the early days like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Hicks that could appeal to a broad demographic. And so for a while Idol could actually manufacture stars. But by 2011, that stopped happening. The fans grew tired of the highly produced pop and all of the me too shows like X Factor and even The Voice have failed to produce the kind of platinum selling artists that Idol turned out.
Cultures go through periods of manufactured pop followed by periods of more authentic and rougher artistry. Think about the transition from the wildness of Elvis and Little Richard in the mid 1950’s to the totally manufactured pop of Frankie Avalon and Fabian in 1960 and then back to rough reality of Bob Dylan in 1964. My guess is that we are in one of those periods where the rough authentic music is what is popular and the idea that Simon Cowell or Blake Shelton can “make a star” is fading into the sunset.