On the same night last week that Fox’s hip-hop soap opera Empire debuted to stellar ratings, another Fox empire, American Idol, continued to slowly crumble. The once-mighty Idol pulled a 3.1 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic, a new low for a season premiere, and down from the 4.7 rating from last year’s premiere. Empire, an expensive new drama, actually pulled in more viewers than the one-hour premiere of its 14-year-old lead-in.
The dip was far from shocking: last year’s finale, a coronation of hard rocker Caleb Johnson, was the show’s lowest-rating finale ever, drawing 10.1 million total viewers and a 2.6 rating in the 18-49 demo. Consider the fact that the highest-rated finale, when Ruben Studdard toppled Clay Aiken in Season 2, pulled in 38.1 million viewers in 2003 — or the fact that just four years ago, when Scotty McCreery won Season 10 in 2011, 29.3 million viewers were watching — and you realize how steep of a cliff Idol has recently fallen off. It’s doubtless why Coca-Cola ended its longtime sponsorship of Idol last December, prompting Billboard sister brand AdWeek to declare “An Iconic Show’s Future Looks Grim” in a headline.
None of this would be too troubling if Idol kept producing stars, or personalities resembling stars. Unfortunately, it appears the well has run dry. Caleb Johnson’s debut album, Testify, scored the weakest debut chart position of any Idol winner, starting at No. 24 on the Billboard 200 chart; the 2013 winner, Candice Glover, didn’t fare much better, as her debut album Music Speaks started at No. 14. Both of those artists possess raw vocal talent, but most casual music fans have no idea who they are.
The previous two winners, Season 10’s Scotty McCreery and Season 11’s Phillip Phillips, have fared slightly better, but neither is a world-conquering superstar in the Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood mold. Can the current version of Idol produce another Phillip Phillips? Sure, if there’s a coronation single as universal as “Home” was for the Season 11 pop-rock troubadour. But what of a reliable hitmaker on the level of Clarkson or Underwood, Adam Lambert or Jordin Sparks? That’s a much tougher hypothetical to predict, and with the way Idol has lost its mojo as a must-watch weekly pop culture event, I wouldn’t bet on it.
This is the corner that Idol has backed itself into: the allure of the show has long been its ability to produce actual stars, something that competitors like The Voice have failed to accomplish. The Voice has been trampling Idol in the ratings thanks to its flashy coaches, not because Javier Colon, Danielle Bradbery and Craig Wayne Boyd have inspired confidence that your favorite new pop star could germinate from the NBC behemoth. Idol wandered down the flashy-judges route as a ratings ploy in Season 12 with Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, but quickly learned that big-name judges don’t necessarily equal big ratings (Rising Star and the U.S. X Factor are quietly nodding their heads from the sidelines).
Now, Idol is committed to a safe formula: judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. to inspire some semblance of continuity; lone original cast member Ryan Seacrest winking up front; and the promise of stardom hanging over everything like a foggy specter. Promos for this season of Idol have featured all of the big names celebrating their big moments, but the footage looked antiquated. “Superstars Made Here” has been used as a tagline, and one wonders if Fox is speaking in the past or present tense with those three words.
If Idol can’t produce big stars or big ratings anymore, what can it offer? The answer, judging from last week’s premiere episode, is wholesome entertainment. For those who haven’t watched in a while, the current judging panel is extremely likable, with all three offering thoughtful analysis and the Ghost of Simon Cowell vanquished into a parallel universe where nastiness is allowed to exist. Lopez plays the fancy maven separating the two rough-and-tumble boys on the panel; she will cry many, many times before season’s end, and most likely perform a new single with Pitbull on the show.
There are no Nicki-Mariah cat fights anymore, with all potential drama replaced by gooey inspiration. The debut episode included Jennifer, a red-haired survivor of gang violence in Memphis who declared, “Music DID save my life!” It also had Michael, a 20-year-old Mississippi farmer who nailed Sam Smith‘s “Stay With Me.” The edgiest moment of the episode came when Michael asked J. Lo to slow-dance with him, a strange and oddly emotional moment. The acidity of the Cowell days is long gone, and everyone on the show appears easy to approach.
So Idol is now comfort food and effective family-time viewing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But how long can the same song keep playing? The beats of the debut episode all felt familiar: the wild-haired guy bombed, the precocious teen girl soared. The animated intro and star-laden logo felt retro, unearthed from a show of a different time period. The only time Idol felt like it existed in 2015 was when one clueless contestant gushed to the camera, “I can’t wait to meet Nicki, and Mariah…” She had to be told that they were no longer attached to Idol, and her look of disappointed confusion did garner the laugh that it aimed for.
Weeks before he was fired last May, Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly announced plans to revamp Idol in its 14th season, stating that he wanted to slim down the show and turn it into a “potent time period contender” similar to Survivor, another reality show that had transitioned from pop culture phenomenon into reliable time slot winner. Those shifts have indeed been made in Reilly’s absence — the results show is gone, Randy Jackson is out as a mentor, and Big Machine Records head Scott Borchetta has taken his place, in hopes of discovering the next Taylor Swift. In a recent USA Today piece, Borchetta stressed the importance of using Idol to find a potent musical personality: “We want more than just the best singer. We want the best artist.”
That mentality switch will help, but how much? As much as Borchetta is a factor within the current music industry, a casual viewer isn’t going to start re-watching Idol because of his presence on the show. And contrary to what Reilly believed, Idol is not Survivor: no one cares what happens to the contestants of Survivor after a winner is crowned. Idol promises a starting point — “Superstars Made Here” — that it is not delivering right now.
The solution: bid Idol adieu. For now, at least.
Here’s how this should go: at the end of this season, if ratings don’t miraculously spring upward or a contestant doesn’t become a bonafide star, Fox should announce that the upcoming Season 15 of Idol will serve as a farewell season, featuring wall-to-wall tributes to previous shows, tons of appearances from past winners, Cowell coming back as a “guest judge” and lots of other hoopla to buttress the standard singing competition. With all these bells and whistles, Season 15 would likely be the most-watched season in some time… and then, Idol goes off the air for five to 10 years.
Maybe Fox cooks up a new singing competition in the meantime — an all-country reality show to mine the newest Scotty McCreerys, or maybe a hip-hop-focused competition to pair with Empire. And when enough time has elapsed, Idol 2.0 arrives, introducing itself to a new generation and preying on the nostalgia of millennials. Maybe a past finalist like Clarkson, Lambert or Sparks could judge. Who knows? Maybe Brian Dunkelman has a son who could co-host the first season of the revamped show.
There’s such name recognition for Idol, and a history that it could flaunt, that I’d bet it does pretty well after a timely sojourn. Once-successful franchises can be rebooted long after going stale — look at recent TV remakes of Hawaii Five-O and Dallas, or the history of the Bond film franchise, to see how the seemingly dead can be revived. Running out of gas doesn’t necessarily mean you’re breaking down; sometimes, you just need to pull over and refuel. The design of American Idol still rings true, but it’s in serious need of a tune-up.