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'American Idol' takes its final bow

'American Idol' dominated the pop culture landscape in the early 2000s and discovered such successful singers as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Now the program's final season will debut on Jan. 6.

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    The original 'American Idol' judges (l. to r.) Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson.
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A TV phenomenon has reached its final verse. “American Idol,” the singing competition that debuted on Fox in 2002, dominated the pop culture landscape, and once held the longest winning streak in the Nielsen annual television ratings, is airing its 15th and final season.

The show discovered and mentored successful singers such as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Chris Daughtry. The original judges – Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul – reached new heights by earning fans among new generations of viewers. During its successful early seasons, “American Idol” regularly attracted a huge number of viewers, with the second season finale, starring Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, ranking as the most watched episode.

“It certainly has had a major impact on television and pop culture,” says Ken Zambello, who teaches vocal ensembles and the history of rock music at Berklee College of Music in Boston. An important ingredient to its success was viewer participation – with fans at home casting votes for who should stay in the competition. Mr. Zambello says he remembers family members becoming heavily invested in the show, watching the program and calling friends to discuss it. 

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Success can often be measured by imitation, however, and spinoffs of the show could explain why ratings for “American Idol” have plummeted. This past spring, the season finale of “American Idol” was its lowest rated ever.

In addition, there haven’t been any recent winners whose success compares with that of Ms. Underwood and Ms. Clarkson; Mr. Cowell, Mr. Jackson, and Ms. Abdul have also long since moved on to other projects.

As a result, Zambello says, aspiring vocalists have come to realize the show is no longer their golden ticket to fame. “[I]t’s not an automatic steppingstone toward stardom,” he says. 

But its legacy seems secure, with “The X Factor” and “The Voice” still going strong. While “Idol” will be gone, Zambello says, singing competition reality shows aren’t going anywhere.

“‘The Voice’ has pretty much taken over,” he says. “It’s ready to ... take the mantle.”

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