As the curtain falls on the show's ninth year this week, "Idol" finds itself at a critical juncture, amid an overall decline in network viewership, a cast in disarray and a worrisome drop in its own ratings. Though still the top-rated show on TV through May 9, "Idol" viewership has slipped to an average of 24.5 million per night, according to Nielsen, with 11.8 million of those viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. That's an approximate 20% decline from the show's highest average of 30.6 million viewers (16.3 million aged 18-49) in 2006 -- the year that Taylor Hicks won or, as most see it, Chris Daughtry didn't.
In addition, "Idol" was beaten in the ratings for the first time in six years on Feb. 17, when NBC's Winter Olympics broadcast attracted almost 12 million more viewers, and has since been topped a few times by the current season of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."
The ratings slide began in 2006 -- by comparison, Fox's overall prime-time viewership from 2006 through 2009 fell only 8.25%, according to Nielsen -- but more troubling is the lack of a late-season ratings bounce this year. The May 5 episode drew just 17.5 million viewers, the lowest rating for a Tuesday performance night since the summer of 2002. The May 17 top-three performance night fared slightly better, with 18.3 million viewers, but decreased one-tenth of a point to a 6.6 rating among adults 18-49.
This is also translating to less viewer participation -- a factor of vital importance to a show that depends on crowd-sourcing to choose America's next pop star. During the May 19 results show, Seacrest announced that the top three contestants had received a total of 47 million votes, down from 88 million at the same point last season. Websites that cover "Idol" -- from its official Internet presence at AmericanIdol.com to vote forecaster Dial Idol and blogs like Vote for the Worst, Rickey.org and MJsBigBlog.com -- have seen their cumulative unique visits per month drop 45% since 2007, according to comScore.
All this downward momentum could have an adverse affect on 19 Recordings and Sony, which together sign the most valued "Idol" contestants to record deals and release their music. If 19 and Sony stick to the release schedule for "Idol" winners of past years, fans can expect to hear a debut single from the champion, and perhaps the runner-up, by October, followed by an album release later in the fourth quarter.
Ever since Kelly Clarkson was crowned its inaugural champion in 2002, "Idol" has been a significant driver of album and single sales for Sony. According to Nielsen SoundScan, contestants have sold an astounding 126.5 million combined albums, singles and download tracks, but no winner or finalist since 2005 victor Carrie Underwood has come close to her walloping numbers. (The country artist's album sales total 11.6 million.) While 2006 fourth-place finisher Chris Daughtry's band Daughtry has sold 5.7 million albums, subsequent winners Jordin Sparks and David Cook have each sold 1.3 million; runners-up Adam Lambert and David Archuleta have sold 747,000 and 970,000, respectively; and last year's victor Kris Allen has sold 310,000. Both Bowersox and DeWyze hew closer to Allen than other recent "Idol" success stories, in that they don't appear to have the outsized personas or ambition required of most stars who captivate arena-sized crowds.