Is American Idol in terminal decline?

Billboard has a fantastic four-page article that charts the apparent decline of American Idol. Once the hottest property on TV, their report shows that it has lost a significant amount of audience share. Former Idol winners and runners-up are showing increasingly mediocre sales figures, and even blogs that have been following the series have been experiencing a downturn in their traffic over the last couple of years.

If you’re a fan (or a former fan) of American Idol, I urge you to read the Billboard article. They’re really put a good amount of work into crunching the numbers around Idol and the perception that it’s in decline. They pose the question:

American Idol Ratings Are At Their Lowest Since 2004, And Simon Cowell Is Moving On. As The Season-Nine Finale Approaches, Can TV’s Talent Show Behemoth Stay Dominant And Turn Its Winners Into Stars Again?

You’ll read about how Idol has been roundly beaten this year, both by the Winter Olympics and by rival show Dancing With The Stars, which at least draws audiences in with celebrity appeal. And the less than stellar viewer figures lead to other effects:

This is also translating to less viewer participation — a factor of vital importance to a show that depends on crowd-sourcing to choose America’s next pop star. During the May 19 results show, Seacrest announced that the top three contestants had received a total of 47 million votes, down from 88 million at the same point last season. Websites that cover “Idol” — from its official Internet presence at to vote forecaster Dial Idol and blogs like Vote for the Worst, and — have seen their cumulative unique visits per month drop 45% since 2007, according to comScore.

What’s interesting is that many of their figures go back several years in charting the decline in interest in the show. To me, that says that the downward trend was already in progress before Paula Abdul left the show, or before Simon Cowell announced his intention to leave earlier this year.

I would suggest that it’s the format that’s getting stale – something for Mr Cowell to worry about in the lead-up to X Factor USA – that the heavy expectation of becoming as big as Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood hangs over all winners and runners-up like a shadow. For me, the problem is that the show encourages the performers to become ‘artists’, but lumbers them with songs and musical themes that they’re not comfortable with as artists.

The judges will assert that it’s important for an artist to be versatile in the type of material they perform, justifying the themed weeks. However, that’s a very thin excuse when you consider what the themed weeks do for the artist in question’s back catalogue sales. I believe that they’re driven to choose artists like Elvis, The Beatles, etc for commercial reasons rather than creative ones. And how ridiculous is it to criticise a contestant for sounding old-fashioned when you’ve given them a selection of Sinatra songs to choose from?

Perhaps if Idol is serious about creating enduring ‘artists’, they need to break the format and allow contestants to sing the music that means something to them. It couldn’t be worse that watching them destroy old Michael Jackson numbers, could it? Let Didi Benami sing folksy songs. Let Michael Lynche give us bluey rock like he did at the beginning. Let Casey James burn up his fretboard. As long as he gives us some good ol’ Texas blues vocals, I’m happy.

Many singers came into [[American Idol (2010 Series)|this years American Idol]] with a good idea of who they were, only to have their personal style derailed by theme weeks and ill-advised comments from the judges.

Simon leaving can be a good thing

Ha, Americans. You think [[Simon Cowell]] is going to come up with an American Idol killing reality show? You could not be more wrong. What you are about to receive from Lord Cowell is a schmaltzier copy of the original Idol format. I think the Cult of Simon has been bad for American Idol in a way, so perhaps his absence will force the producers to do something more creative.

For a start – drop Ellen. A fourth judge takes up precious airtime and doesn’t really add much to the criticism the contestants need. Especially if she’s busy thinking up unicorn analogies instead of actually listening to them. Get Randy J some English lessons. I don’t know what language dawg speaks, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. Kara’s the only one with vision and valid comments on that panel. Fact.

So, keep Kara. It’s too soon to drop Randall after Simon leaving. Don’t want to alienate the audience completely. But get somebody in there who can judge and judge well. They don’t even have to have a British accent! We want some fun on the judging panel, but we also need sound advisers to help push the contestants along.

What the readers say?

This is the biggest question hanging over American Idol right now – can it survive the departure of Simon Cowell? My question to you: is it all about Simon Cowell, or is there anything else American Idol could be doing to make it essential viewing once again?

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