'American Idol' Ratings Are At Their Lowest Since 2004, And Simon Cowell Is Moving On. As The Season-Nine Finale Approaches, Can TV's Talent Show Behemoth Stay Dominant And Turn Its Winners Into Stars Again?
"Alright, so listen, man. I don't know what's quite going on...it was just alright for me. It didn't really take off, ever, and it started kind of rough. I don't know."
Randy Jackson said this on the May 11 episode of "American Idol," after Michael Lynche -- the hulking, 26-year-old singer known as "Big Mike" -- performed a serviceable but charm-devoid take on Michael Jackson 's "Will You Be There." (Voters sent Lynche packing a day later.) He could've been referring to any recent night of "American Idol," though -- or its entire run this year.
Since its Jan. 12 premiere on Fox, the ninth season of "Idol" has been plagued with chatter about the show's decline. The pool of contestants was widely considered to be the weakest in the show's vaunted history, with the top 10 finalists, who will perform together on this summer's American Idol Live! tour, comprising a bizarre mix of pop/R&B singers with identity crises and guitar-strumming "street busker" types, as Simon Cowell likes to call them. The remaining two hopefuls -- Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox -- are both of the latter strain, and one will emerge as the winner on the May 26 season finale.
The fractured chemistry among the judges has also dominated water-cooler talk. Paula Abdul  -- the show's centripetal force of schmaltz and drama -- left the show, ostensibly replaced by Ellen DeGeneres. Moreover, two days before the season premiere, Cowell announced he'd be leaving "Idol" after the conclusion of season nine, and many onlookers have observed that he has appeared disinterested this year, even bored. (Cowell stands to make millions more next fall when "The X Factor," the fork-tongued U.K. counterpart to "Idol" that he executive-produces, hits U.S. shores on Fox.)
"Everyone is trying, but it's just not connecting," says Maura Johnston, who writes about "Idol" for Fancast.com . "And Simon Cowell is so linked with the whole franchise. He is 'American Idol,' more than [host Ryan] Seacrest, more than anyone. The fact that he's leaving, I think, has affected the perception of the show."
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.
"Every season is different," RCA Music Group executive VP/GM Tom Corson says. "Yes, some seasons are a little stronger than others. One season you have Taylor Hicks, the next you have Carrie Underwood. We often don't know until six to nine months down the road how the contestants will resonate."
"The talent isn't much worse than before," says Richard Rushfield, the former Los Angeles Times "Idol" maven who now blogs about the show for the Daily Beast. "But what you don't have is a breakout sensation that rises above the pack, the way Adam Lambert did last year, the way David Archuleta and David Cook did the year before, the way Carrie Underwood or Chris Daughtry did. Those people didn't necessarily win, but they gave their seasons a great story."
STILL NO. 1
All hand-wringing aside, "Idol" is still No. 1 in the ratings and still commands the highest ad rate of any program, which Fox executives pointed out during the network's May 16 upfront presentation in New York. "We're aware the show is off about 9% this year, but in comparison to other shows that's actually pretty good," Fox entertainment chairman Peter Rice said. The network also announced that it would trim the show's elimination episodes down to 30 minutes for season 10. "The audience wants us to tighten up the results show and they want more performances, so that's what we'll give them next year," Rice said.
"Idol" also continues to provide a powerful sales boost to artists who appear on the show.
Sean "Diddy" Combs performed "Hello Good Morning," his current single with Dirty Money, on the March 31 results show a day after the track's digital release. It subsequently sold 81,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, to debut at No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100. Shania Twain's "Greatest Hits" set returned to the Billboard 200 with 7,000 copies, according to SoundScan (a 251% increase), after she mentored country week. When Harry Connick Jr. served as mentor during Frank Sinatra week, sales of his "Your Songs" album jumped 531% to re-enter the Billboard 200 at No. 58, while Sinatra's hits compilations "Nothing but the Best" and "Classic Sinatra" re-entered at Nos. 129 and 194, respectively (up 81% and 43%).
Season-eight runner-up Lambert mentored the contestants during Elvis Presley week, and as a result he earned his first top 10 hit on the Hot 100. Performed on the April 14 results show, Lambert's "Whataya Want From Me" doubled its download sales the following week to 108,000, according to SoundScan, enough for it to earn the week's Digital Gainer award and move 29-8 on the Hot Digital Songs chart.
Lambert's stint was also notable in that it was the first time an "Idol" contestant returned to the show as a mentor. The choice of Lambert suggests that "Idol" now treats its more successful runners-up with as much or more deference as its winners.
"[There's a] perception of winning not really being important," Fancast's Johnston says. "The whole message of having Adam Lambert be the first contestant to come back and be a mentor was sort of curious. It's like, 'Well, is the goal winning, or is it just making a splash on TV?' "
If the goal has changed, it shouldn't come as much of a shock. After all, the average person could be forgiven for not remembering that Hicks, Sparks and even Allen were "Idol" winners. That seems to have permeated the attitude of this season's contestants; Bowersox told reporters two weeks ago that she and her competitors were "all winners," and Lynche said his mission was only to make the top three. The theory that winning "Idol" isn't everything -- put into focus by Hicks' victory in 2006 and sharpened by Lambert's loss to Allen last year -- may have lowered the bar all around.
"We thought we would kill 'Idol,' but it's killing itself," says Dave Della Terza, creator of Vote for the Worst. Della Terza says he's thinking of shuttering the website because covering "Idol" has become "a chore" and, ironically, he says the contestants are too bad. "You need to have great contestants on the show in order for us to work, so that people get angry when their favorites are voted off first," he says. Vote for the Worst has seen its traffic drop from 248,000 unique visitors in April 2009 to 135,000 last month, according to comScore.
Rickey Yaneza of Rickey.org, however, counters that the Tim Urbans, Andrew Garcias and Lacey Browns of this year are hardly different from the Ace Youngs, Megan Joys and Kevin Covaises of seasons past. "There are haters every year," he says, "but I've had people say that they love the singers on the show. They like the idea that so many people are playing the guitar."
Indeed, the presence of so many guitars onstage -- which was introduced in season seven, when "Idol" started allowing contestants to play instruments -- has also shifted the priorities of the show, which now often touts becoming an "artist," not becoming an "idol," as the ultimate goal. It's a small but significant difference in word choice, as the latter beckons a broader fan base and the more traditional, glory-note-belting kind of pop star that the show once championed.
"It's interesting that the advent of letting [the contestants] use instruments has produced a crowd that is kind of cooler, but much less mass appeal-oriented, which is exactly what 'Idol' was invented to circumvent," the Daily Beast's Rushfield says. "Without instruments, you wouldn't have had David Cook, Kris Allen, Jason Castro, Brooke White, Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze."
"The people who made the top three -- Crystal, Lee and Casey [James] -- they're all sort of in the same folk/rock genre, which can't really be by mistake," says Anoop Desai, who finished sixth last season and recently self-released his debut album, "All Is Fair." "But will the music that people voted through on the show be pop music on the radio? It seems like there shouldn't be any disconnect, but as we all know, that isn't necessarily the case."
THE 'S' FACTOR
"Idol," of course, will start all over again next year with a new batch of contestants and the opportunity to find another future star. But it will have to do so without Cowell, who is the only real game-changer in a franchise with so many moving parts. "We have to find a judge to replace Simon who provides both musical credibility and incredible entertainment value," Rice said at the Fox upfront. "There is no bigger question for the summer."
It will also have to contend with "The X Factor" and compete for the loyalties of Sony, which signed a six-year deal with Cowell in January that will allow it to release the music of "X Factor" winners in the United States. Cowell's own label, Syco Music, will be the partner as always.
"Simon is bringing the next most powerful music show in the world to Fox," music executive Charlie Walk says, "and I'd bet on Simon any day. He knows exactly what he is doing."
Replacing Cowell poses a tremendous challenge for 19 and Fox, especially when everyone seems to have an opinion on who should get the job. Such famous "Idol" fans as Howard Stern, Perez Hilton and producer Steve Lillywhite have all publicly lobbied for the gig, while others, like Elton John, are rumored to have turned it down. No matter the choice, season 10 of "Idol" stands to be scrutinized more than any show in recent history.
"When you have a mature format, by definition you're probably going to lose a little bit every year," RCA's Corson says. "But it's still the No. 1-rated television show. So they're doing OK if you ask me."
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