The Sad Fall Of “American Idol”

Yes, the ratings — but also, the whole thing.

Caleb Johnson, American Idol’s winner. Michael Becker/Fox

During a conference call with reporters last week, Fox’s Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly announced that the network will air fewer hours of American Idol next season. At the show’s height, Idol aired more than 19 million hours per season — a rough approximation — and viewers ate them up. In its most recent 13th season, which wrapped Wednesday night, Idol was on for more than 50 hours; its 14th season, Reilly said, will take up 37 hours of Fox’s schedule. He went on to say that while Idol will never be what it was, he saw a future in which it could continue for years at these lower levels as a “potent time period contender and a top-rated unscripted show.” He cited Survivor on CBS as a model — a former phenomenon that has since become a steady performer and just wrapped its 28th season.

That, of course, is one possible road for Idol, which once dominated pop culture and was a star-making vehicle for both its winners and its judges. But considering how profoundly the bottom dropped out of the show’s ratings this season, it won’t be an easy achievement. The two-night Season 13 finale numbers were symbolic of the crash: Wednesday’s coronation of Caleb Johnson over Jena Irene drew 10.1 million viewers and a 2.6 in the key 18 to 49 demographic that advertisers seek. Last season’s finale drew 14.3 million viewers and a 3.6 in 18 to 49. That’s a big drop. More dramatically, the Tuesday performance show hit series lows in total viewers: 6.6 million and a 1.7 in 18 to 49. Those numbers were almost half of what last season’s performance show drew.

And those ratings were already so low, compared with what Idol once brought in. Even two years ago, Phillip Phillips’ victory drew an audience of 21.5 million; in 2011, Scotty McCreery won before 29.3 million viewers. The highest rated finale ever, Idol fans will remember, was Ruben Studdard beating Clay Aiken in Season 2: 38.1 million viewers!

As for the season-long ratings, excluding Wednesday night’s episode, this season drew an average of 11.8 million viewers; last season’s average was 15 million, and the season before was 19.4 million. You get where this is going: down. Dramatically.

During that press call last week, Reilly said he felt confident that the judging panel of Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick Jr. would return, marking some consistency for the show. Gone are the days when the judges — particularly Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul — helped fuel the Idol drama. Also gone are the days when Idol brought the viewing public together in debates about which singer you loved more, David Cook or David Archuleta, or how big of a star Carrie Underwood would become. No one has ever or will ever care that much about NBC’s The Voice, which is currently the No. 1 talent show — and after six cycles, it is already sinking.

We always knew that Idol was the last massively watched television show — that its days of being seen and parsed by more than 30 million loving viewers were numbered. Yet, it’s still sad knowing that American culture, now split into a billion pieces forever, will never be as communal and shared as it was during American Idol’s height. The show will continue for one more season, and perhaps for years after, as Reilly said. But most of us have already said good-bye.

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