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‘American Idol’ risks being drowned out by competition’s voices

This news story was published on January 18, 2012.
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By Gail Pennington, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

Should “American Idol” be running scared?

Arriving in June 2002, the competition (spun off from the UK hit “Pop Idol”) hardly took TV by storm. Fewer than 10 million viewers tuned in for the premiere. But by the time Kelly Clarkson was crowned that September, viewership had surged to 23 million, and “Idol” hasn’t looked back.

For Season 2, in January 2003, more than 26 million Americans tuned in. For Season 3, in January 2004, almost 29 million. For the past six seasons, “American Idol” has been broadcast TV’s top-rated series.

Talent competitions are as old as television. But in its early years, “Idol” had the genre mainly to itself. Especially revolutionary was its voting format: Although the judges would make early eliminations and comment thereafter, the ultimate decisions belonged to viewers.

Kids and parents found something they could watch together. Websites encouraged taking sides. Voters clogged phone lines. By 2006, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article declared that “American Idol” was “far bigger than television.”

The 2006 season, the fifth for “Idol,” was the show’s top-rated, averaging 30.3 million. That was also about the time the backlash started.

The judges were too mean. The contestants weren’t talented enough. Too much time was wasted on the early, bad auditions. The results show was a waste of time.

Meanwhile, some younger viewers were drifting away. In Year 1, the median age of an “American Idol” viewer was 31.9, according to Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. Last season, the figure was 47.4 — dangerously close to 49, the end of the 18-49 demographic desired by advertisers.

At the same time, other networks were trying to copy the “Idol” format. From “Dancing With the Stars” (2005) to “America’s Got Talent” (2006), producers capitalized on our love of casting our votes, at least from the couch, with phone in hand.

More recently, judge Simon Cowell left “American Idol” to launch his own, very similar talent competition, “The X Factor,” also a British import and a huge hit there. Cowell recruited former “Idol” judge Paula Abdul for “The X Factor,” which launched in September on Fox.

But first, NBC jumped into the game with “The Voice,” which made its debut in April and was a surprise hit for the struggling network. Fans praised “The Voice” for its warm and fuzzy atmosphere, with Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green mentoring the contestants on the way to a feel-good finale.

“The Voice” never approached “American Idol” viewership, topping out with about 14 million viewers and averaging about 11 million. Neither did “The X Factor”; although Cowell boasted that the show would draw 20 million, it actually averaged closer to 12 million.

“American Idol” (returning Wednesday and Thursday on Fox) and “The Voice” will both be on the air as of Feb. 5, when the Season 2 premiere of “The Voice” follows the Super Bowl on NBC. But with “The Voice” airing Mondays and “Idol” on Wednesdays (the performance show) and Thursday (once the season gets underway, the results show), they won’t compete head to head. “The X Factor” returns next fall.

“The Voice” announced last week that original “Idol” Clarkson would join the show this season as an on-air adviser to one team of contestants, along with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Jewel, Miranda Lambert (mentor Shelton’s wife), Alanis Morissette, Ne-Yo, Lionel Richie and Robin Thicke.

But “American Idol” isn’t quaking in its go-go boots.

“We are the original,” judge Randy Jackson said at a Fox Q&A event last week. Jackson is joined on the judging panel by Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.

“We kind of invented this whole game that everybody is now copying,” Jackson said. “And I say that they are copying it, right?”

Jackson also bashed “The Voice” because its winner had formerly been under contract to Capitol Records, something “American Idol” doesn’t allow.

Skeptics, however, wonder whether four hours of singing competition (two for “Idol,” two for “The Voice”) in a single week will create more viewer fatigue and more eroding ratings. With other competitions also on the schedule (“Dancing With the Stars” returns March 18 on ABC) and many filling two-hour time slots, the question has to be how long viewers will find that much time to watch, even if they get to vote.



Here is this season’s “American Idol” early schedule on Fox. All start times are 8 p.m. EST unless noted.

Wednesday-Thursday — Season premiere; auditions.

Jan. 22 (10 p.m. EST estimated start time) — Audition show follows NFC championship game.

Jan. 25-26, Feb. 1-2 and Feb. 8 — Auditions.

Feb. 9, 15 and 16 — Hollywood round.

Feb 22 — “Performance Challenge.”

Feb. 23 — Semifinalists announced.

Feb. 28 — 400th episode; first semifinalists perform, followed by voting.

Feb. 29 — Remaining semifinalists perform.

March 1 — Semifinalists not voted in perform for judges to become wild card picks.

March 7 — Finalists perform.

March 8 — First finalist eliminated.

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