There are plenty of things you can say about the end of American Idol, but ultimately, it all comes down to one thing: the numbers. In case you missed the fact that The Simpsons is still on the air, Fox doesn’t put a show to sleep just because it’s overstayed its welcome — the ratings have to consistently dip to a point where the show no longer becomes worth the trouble.
Not that long ago, Idol was a ratings juggernaut — an unstoppable, unprecedented force on the TV landscape. Now…not so much. So with the end of Idol upon us (next year’s 15th season will be its last), we’re looking back on the imposing ratings Idol started delivering to Fox in 2002 and the gradual slip that set in with season 9.
Specifically, we’re focusing on each season’s finale ratings. Idol‘s finales weren’t just the moment a winner was crowned; they were the crowning moment of each season. It was the episode where Idol celebrated its mission statement and its past successes and scored upward of 25 million viewers for years. So by following the rising and falling path of Idol’s season finale ratings (data courtesy Nielsen), you can follow the show’s unprecedented ascension and gradual slide into semi-irrelevance. Check out the graphic above.
When Idol debuted in 2002, it was a cultural phenomenon — but not quite yet a juggernaut. Despite season 1 giving us one of Idol‘s most successful winners, Kelly Clarkson, the finale ratings actually weren’t as blockbuster as the next nine finales to come. True, 22.8 million viewers isn’t anything for an advertiser to turn their nose up at, but the season 2 finale would climb to a massive 38.1 million viewers when Ruben Studdard beat Clay Aiken.
While Idol would never reach that peak for a finale again — the closest was the season 5 finale when 36.4 million tuned in to see Taylor Hicks best Katharine McPhee — it would stay well above 25 million viewers until season 9, when the tepid Lee DeWyze vs. Crystal Bowersox showdown earned 24.2 million.
Scotty McCreery‘s victory over Lauren Alaina gave Idol a boost to its former glory in season 10 with 29.2 million, but by season 11, Idol had slipped to its lowest-rated finale ever. Despite earning one of the highest-peaking Hot 100 hits for a latter day Idol winner (“Home” reached the top 10), Phillip Phillips only drew 21.4 million viewers for his victory episode.
From there, new lows kept coming. Candice Glover beat Kree Harrison the next year, but the real story was The Big Bang Theory besting Idol’s finale ratings, which sputtered at 14.3 million. The steep drop continued last season when just 10.2 million watched Caleb Johnson beat Jena Irene.
And this year, well, you know the story. Fox didn’t even wait until they saw the season 14 finale ratings to announce that next year would see Idol put the rest.
While the news of Idol‘s demise probably won’t boost the season 14 finale to the show’s former ratings glory, it’s hard to imagine Fox not pulling out all the stops — bringing back all the judges, winners and forgotten favorites — for the American Idol series finale. It’s a far off prediction, but maybe, just maybe, we’ll see Idol‘s ratings bump back over the 25 million mark for the last time when the series wraps.