American Idol is entering uncharted territory. It’s not only no longer winning the night for Fox, it’s no longer the most popular show on its own network when it airs. And it’s tanking at a bad time: The show is showing unprecedented audience erosion just as “sweeps” – the period networks use to set advertising rates for the following season – are getting underway. On May 1, Idol hit an all-time low in the 18-to-49 demographic with 2.4 million viewers in the age group, according to Nielsen. The same night, its second hour slipped behind CBS’ Criminal Minds. All this, as the reality stalwart approaches its 500th episode on May 14. Perhaps it’s a good time to look back and remember some of the show’s more priceless moments, as collected by Billboard veteran Fred Bronson.
The 10 finalists gathered to head to the finale. “We need to leave and a guy comes up to me,” recalls senior supervising producer Patrick Lynn. “He says, ‘My boy is a huge fan of American Idol and he would love to sing for Kelly [Clarkson].'” Kelly and Justin Guarini encouraged the 11-year-old to sing. “He’s unbelievable,” says Lynn. That kid was David Archuleta, who would audition for season seven and finish as runner-up.
Bo Bice wanted to perform Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” but music supervisor Susan Slamer wasn’t sure she could get permission. Bice was rehearsing when Slamer handed him her cellphone; it was Croce’s widow, Ingrid, who said yes because her son was a fan of Bice. Tears streamed down the singer’s face. The others ran over to make sure he was OK. “When Bo hung up,” recalls Slamer, he called it “the most amazing moment of his life.”
For the finale, over 25,000 fans filled a stadium in Birmingham, Ala., to support Taylor Hicks. Meanwhile, producer Simon Lythgoe was directing another event for Katharine McPhee in Los Angeles. It was a challenge. “We had a maximum of 30 people at Universal CityWalk…We scrunched the people together to fill up the frame,” says Lythgoe. “People in Los Angeles aren’t passionate about supporting their own talent.”