As an entertainment columnist, I’d be remiss if I didn’t eventually dedicate a column to the highest-rated show on TV. Many of you love it, but I’m sure that even more of you hate it, so I won’t be offended if you stop reading and start mocking me after the next sentence. For the fans though, as Ryan Seacrest loves to dramatically remind us every week: This… is “American Idol.”
Since its debut almost six years ago, “American Idol” has been an unprecedented success in the ratings, and more importantly it’s changed the landscape of TV. While “Survivor” brought the reality TV genre back into the mainstream, there’s no doubt “Idol” kept reality TV alive and took it to a new level. Just look at the latest Nielsen ratings as proof. “Idol” tops the list with 25.7 and 24.7 million viewers for its dual airings, almost doubling the numbers for the highest-rated sitcom, CBS’s “Two and a Half Men.” Overall, 12 of the top 20 shows in last week’s ratings were reality shows or game shows. A disturbing trend for viewers, but a boon for TV executives who would much rather produce cheap “reality” TV than pay actors six figures per episode.
While the point of the show is to find singing stars, the amazing thing about “Idol’s” influence is the six winners haven’t been all that successful. Season one winner Kelly Clarkson and season four champ Carrie Underwood have both sold almost 10 million albums in the U.S., but after them the drop-off is steep, leading one to wonder if you can only be a successful American Idol if you’re a hot chick. Guys like Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks were popular during their seasons, but that affection certainly hasn’t translated to music sales. Studdard’s last album sold only 237,000 copies, and Hicks is one of two Idol winners – season six’s Jordin Sparks being the other – to not cross the one million-album mark.
The show may be about music, but if you’re looking for “Idol” success, look no further than anyone and everyone who’s not crooning on stage. Fox has made “Idol” its flagship show with great results, as “Idol” hasn’t fallen out of the ratings top three in five years. She may not always be coherent, lucid, thoughtful or even sober, but Paula Abdul has taken full advantage of her role as the bubbly, smiling center of the three-pronged judge sandwich, resurrecting her career in the process. Always sitting to her right, and always calling someone a “dawg” or a “dude” even though he’s neither a thug nor a surfer, is Randy Jackson, who’s used his “Idol” fame to become a producing mogul. It’s unclear what his judging qualifications are, but he’s performed with everyone from Journey to Blue Oyster Cult. And if you’re good enough for Blue Oyster Cult, you’re pretty much good enough for anyone.
While millions of people have auditioned, there are clearly two ultimate winners of “American Idol” – and neither one has ever sung a note on air. In just a few years, Seacrest has gone from children’s game show host to some sort of Dick Clark/Larry King mutation. He became filthy rich in the process – he earns a reported $14 million a year – and dates famous actresses even though he’s probably gay. Then there’s surly Brit Simon Cowell, who turned a few seasons of being a dick into an empire reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now in its seventh incarnation, “Idol” is going stronger than ever, and with thousands of Americans still willing to line up every January to take their shot at becoming a star – or being embarrassed – there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for TV’s current heavyweight. As for the latest season, I did a little painful research in preparation for this column and the 2008 “Idol” crown appears to be Michael Johns’ to lose. You can debate the merits of having an Australian as your American Idol, but anyone who’s willing to sing “We Are the Champions” just weeks after singing the theme song from “The Breakfast Club” is probably a worthy champion.