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'American Idol' is Killing It This Year, So Why Aren't More People Watching?

Wade Cota
ABC/Eric McCandless

Wade Cota performs on American Idol.

There's a pretty good chance you haven't seen what's happening on American Idol this season. The long-running reality singing competition -- which at its peak in 2006 averaged more than 30 million viewers a week -- has been in a ratings holding pattern so far this year, with weekly numbers below 10 million since it debuted on new network ABC last year after 15 seasons on Fox. But even as viewership has dipped slightly again this season, something unexpected has been happening onscreen: Idol is as good as it's ever been. 

Maybe better. Maybe even the best it's been since the first four-year run got America hooked on a feeling.

Idol has forever struggled to walk the tightrope between focusing on aspiring star singers and sharing the spotlight with its star-studded, forever rotating panel of A-, B- and D-list judges. Over the years, those seats have been filled by everyone from the "original three" -- cranky Brit/co-creator Simon Cowell (the "mean one"), little-known but super-enthusiastic big dawg/studio veteran Randy Jackson ("the music one") and 1980s faded pop singer Paula Abdul ("the sweet one") -- to a series of replacements who were either limp or distractingly out of place (Kara DioGuardi, Ellen DeGeneres, Keith Urban), not to mention stars that frequently stole the bright lights from their ostensible charges (Mariah CareyNicki MinajJennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler).

With the jump to ABC last year, the left-for-dead series appeared to recapture that original magic thanks to the easy chemistry between soft and fuzzy pop legend Lionel Richie, good-guy country star Luke Bryan and up-for-anything pop superstar Katy Perry. The three were happy to let the singers be the main focus, while engaging in just enough shenanigans to make sure the next morning's headlines would drive tune-in -- but without so many push-ups, guitar tune-ups or selfies that they distracted completely from the young talent. The trio look like they genuinely have fun while offering useful, gentle advice, and they've mostly avoided turning the show into a product-placement caravan for their latest single/album/movie.

And so far this year's crop is packed with some very promising, diverse contestants with equally compelling backstories that touch on a wide cross-section of bold headline issues that pop in this age of angst: death, love, fear, anxiety, faith and perseverence. From young widows to gay preacher's sons struggling to come out, survivors of familial/domestic violence and sibling's suicides and attempted suicides and a newly blind teen, to recovering addicts and a teen struggling with a disfiguring autoimmune skin condition, the heartstring-tugging stories are, as always, edited for maximum emotional impact without dribbling into treacly territory.

That kind of gut-punch storytelling has long been a hallmark of the early Idol auditioning process. The difference this year is that the hard-luck tales are accompanied by some legitmately star-worthy talents, whose combo of pipes and perseverence have repeatedly driven the judges to standing ovations and tears, in moving moments that break the wall between untouchable, Instagram-perfect stardom and what appear to be real emotional connections. The sight of a red-eyed Bryan barely able to contain himself when Nick Townsend told the story of his two brothers' suicides -- Bryan shared that he'd also lost two siblings -- might be one of the realest moments in Idol history. And it was only a few seconds of screen time that editors wisely didn't try to punch home too bombastically.

The same goes for Perry's cry pretty/ugly reaction to Johanna Jones' surprise onstage engagement during Hollywood Week. Of course Perry knew exactly where Camera 3 was during the slam-dunk, made-for-TV moment. But it also appeared to be a show of genuine tears of joy from a singer who would herself get engaged to her longtime love Orlando Bloom just two months later, tapping into a possibly real sentiment held just below the surface.

The added bonus in many cases is also that some, like widow Lauren Engle, preacher's kid Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon and quirky Eddie Island, came armed with original songs that felt just a few studio polishes away from being ready for radio.

The beauty of Idol is that it never really changes. For nearly two decades, the show has been laser-focused on turning a ragtag bunch of bedroom crooners and church-bred belters into potential stars, building them up by pushing them to the edge while tamping down their hammier tendencies -- some of which they've probably learned from studying Idol all these years. There's always the kid who takes sick during Hollywood Week and has to be rushed to the hospital in a cliff-hanger, the slapped-together quartets who can't get along, the diva who screws it up for his/her group and the shining star that crashes to Earth after no sleep, too much pressure and flubbed lyrics. 

We love to see the drama -- but this time around, our spirit guides make it all seem OK -- especially when it isn't. "All Night Long" superstar Richie might not be top of mind for most of the teen and twentysomething singers, but his benevolent, grandfatherly hugs, rheumy, kind eyes and "you can do it" advice have been a soothing balm to wrecked nerves week-after-week. Bryan's aw-shucks gratitude and faith also shine through, even if his personality never really burns beyond a low simmer. But, man, when he noticed that Colby Swift had walked holes through the bottom of his shoes, the country star's decision to literally give Swift the boots off his feet to boost the country drawler's confidence was This Is Us-level tearjerker TV.

At a time of national rancor and bitter division, Idol is a cloud of lovely, good clean fun where nobody is ever really mean and everyone wants you to soar. Is 19-year-old Vietnamese immigrant Myra Tran really "the next Kelly Clarkson"? Maybe. But kudos to producers for getting rid of most of the mocking "bad auditions" that were a highlight of the Fox run, replacing them with good-natured ribbing of the less talented, oddball wannabees by letting them in on the joke instead of making them the butt of it. With that, Idol is once again a safe space for dreamers. Now, even the geeks, shriekers and clearly unserious are treated with kid gloves and even indulged a bit, given a gentle nudge off the stage as if to say, "Take your 'look at me' act to Simon's other show, they love to tear people down and make fun of them for ratings.'"

Through Monday, according to data provided by Nielsen, Idol is averaging 7.55 million viewers on Sunday (counting four episodes) -- down 9 percent from last year -- and 6.79 million on Monday (through two episodes and a Wednesday airing) -- down 14 percent from last year. At the same point last season, it was averaging 8.32 million on Sunday and 7.96 million on Monday.

For comparison, the final season on Fox in 2017 averaged 9.9 million on Wednesdays and 9.26 million on Thursday nights through the first four weeks. In the crucial 18-49 demo, the ABC reboot is down 25 percent on Sundays and 19 percent on Mondays, which is perhaps more concerning for ABC. But not so dire that the network isn't tripling down with this Sunday's three-hour show from the Aulani Disney Resort & Spa in Hawaii, where the top 40 contestants will perform a showcase in tropical paradise before being cut down to 20.

Since the rise of streaming services, network ratings are generally down across the board and the days of any show reliably drawing 30 million or more viewers twice a week appear to be over for good, especially for a nearly two-decade-old variety show battling against an ever-expanding universe of streamable content; the highest-rated show on TV last week was the 51-year-old 60 Minutes, which drew just over 10 million viewers, and this season's most-watched non-NFL programming is The Big Bang Theory, which averaged around 12.9 million viewers per episode. Add in the fact that the last five forgettable Idol winners (Candice Glover, Caleb Johnson, Nick Fradiani, Trent Harmon, Maddie Poppe) have either faded swiftly into obscurity or failed to make a significant dent on the Billboard charts to date, and you have a hard slog back to ratings/chart domination.

Is the show a bit predictable and long-in-the-tooth at a time when fresh on-demand options pop up on an almost daily basis? Probably. Does it have one of the strongest group of contenders after years when it seemed like Idol and slightly higher-rated rival The Voice had run the undiscovered talent well dry? Definitely. Just try watching one of former street busker Alejandro Aranda's performances and tell me that you're not moved by his passion and singular style. Regardless of where he ends up, getting to watch Aranda week-after-week has been a rare treat.

At its core, Idol is still about the same thing as this week's $750 million Powerball drawing: reaching for that one infinitesimal chance that you could be the one, that the show could change your life forever in a blink. And even if you woke up Thursday morning to the news that it wasn't you this time, that momentary tickle in your stomach before the reveal -- that thrill you get from watching 26-year-old rideshare driver Juan Pablo rip off a simmering, Enrique Iglesias-worthy cover of Lady Gaga's "Million Reasons" -- is a feeling we can all relate to. And something we could all use a bit more of these days.

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