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How 'American Idol' changed music, television

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'American Idol' is signing off Thursday night after a zeitgeist-dominating run. How the show became such a big hit and how the television industry is still seeing the effects of its massive success.

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    The original 'American Idol' judges, Randy Jackson (l.), Paula Abdul (center), and Simon Cowell (r.), appear in a 2008 episode of the TV show.
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With its series finale on Thursday, the 15-season, massively successful TV franchise “American Idol” leaves the airwaves for good. 

As the Fox singing competition takes its curtain call, it's worth pausing to look at how "Idol" single-handedly reshaped the music and television industry.

The show was so dominant in its time slot that rival network execs called it the "Death Star" – no one wanted to air their shows against it. For a decade, "Idol" was the cash cow for Fox and the show's unparalleled success helped launch the era of reality TV, re-introduced live TV to a new generation of viewers, spawned a level of audience engagement that continues into the social media era, and created a whole new launching pad for pop singers. 

“Idol” debuted in 2002, at a key moment in television history, when the American TV audience was splintering into niches, says M​att ​Sienkiewicz​, assistant professor in the communication department at Boston College and co-editor of “Saturday Night Live and American TV​.” 

“This is where cable channels are exploding and satellite is coming online and the Internet is starting to put video up,” Professor Sienkiewicz says. “Whereas the previous era of television still had sort of this kind of event, water-cooler kind of programming that big swaths of the audience watched, that was starting to disappear and 'American Idol' offered a new version of that, a reclaiming of the idea that there would be a show that cut across demographics in particular. The TV audience is being cut up into little tiny pieces as 'American Idol' becomes popular and 'American Idol' glues many of those demographics back together.” 

Multigenerational TV watching was suddenly back in vogue: Mom, Dad, Grandma and the kids all gathered in one room to hear mostly older songs covered and remixed by young singers. “Idol” quickly became the most-watched primetime TV show in the US for nine consecutive years.  It held this status for both total viewers and viewers aged 18-49, a valued demographic among advertisers. 

The format of the show, in which contestants auditioned and then made it through various rounds to compete in theme weeks, soon became familiar to viewers. Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Northwestern University, says the way “Idol” presented the stories of contestants auditioning, often with heartstring-tugging backstories, attracted viewers.

“It seemed like [the producers] really had a handle on how to lock in the audience and get them invested in the stories that they were trying to tell,” Professor Christian says.

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"Idol" also debuted the summer following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, at a time when American audiences were questioning – or reaffirming their values – and the idea that anyone could become a star (even a homeless girl from Texas, Kelly Clarkson) resonated with them.

The initial three judges – Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson – proved popular with viewers as well, with Mr. Cowell providing no-holds-barred commentary on contestants, Ms. Abdul serving as a warmer presence, and Mr. Jackson the usually relaxed musician. “It's one of the great casts in television history,” Sienkiewicz says. “And we should look at it as casting, no different than a sitcom.”

Cowell – and his brutally honest comments – made him a well-known TV personality. Some criticized Cowell’s insults to the contestants, but Christian points out this also benefited the network.

“That was the dynamic that ‘American Idol’ subsisted off for a long time, where Simon [Cowell] would tell someone they did a horrible job and that would incentivize fans to call [Fox] to say, 'No, they didn't,’” Christian says. 

He says that having the judges stay the same as new talent arrived each season benefited the show as well.  “These judges as the stable components of the show became personalities that people could use to talk about the show and was important to the experience,” Christian says. 

The element of voting for a contestant made viewers invested in their chosen singer, which led to later success in the music business, says Christian. 

"By the end of the season, you've been voting for this person again and again and again and again and so you feel invested in their success," he says. "And so I think that's why, especially early on, the people who won really did go on to have very successful careers, because they had several months on network television where fans were encouraging them to keep going."

That level of engagement – and exposure – made stars of winners (and even contestants who didn't win), including Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, and Jennifer Hudson. 

While “Idol” is signing off, the television industry is still being influenced by it, though broadcast networks are in a far different position now than they were at the time of the debut of “Idol." The traditional TV model has been changed, with programming produced by more cable networks and by streaming services.

Live “Idol” results shows, which kept viewers watching to see if their favorite contestant had made it through another week, are the predecessors of the contemporary live musical productions recently popularized by NBC and Fox, says Christian.

“’American Idol’ really started this realization for broadcasters that if they want to stay around, they have to be doing live programming,” he says.

Integrating technology was also key. “AT&T taught us how to text in large part by sponsoring ‘American Idol,’” Sienkiewicz remembers. 

Now tweeting along with a show – particularly a live one – can be an integral part of the experience. “One of the great hopes for the ... broadcast, mainstream television industry is that second-screen experiences become so intertwined that people are willing to sit through commercials if it also allows them to tweet about the show with their friends,” he says. “And ‘American Idol,’ by ... converging the phone with the broadcast television medium, sort of paved the way for this.” 

TV shows now regularly present hashtags onscreen during a program or otherwise encourage viewers to get on social media to discuss a show.

As for reality programming itself, “Idol” was a major contributor to the rise of the genre. "Idol" was based on a successful British show, "Pop Idol." Executive producer Simon Fuller pitched the show to Fox at a time when, based on the early success of CBS's "Survivor," networks were casting about for similar "unscripted" TV shows. 

While the other big reality TV singing competition “The Voice” is an exception, many of the reality programs still on TV are in double-digit seasons, with long-running shows in this genre including “Survivor” (32 seasons and counting) and “Big Brother” (18 seasons so far) and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” (22 seasons so far) and “The Bachelor" (20 seasons and counting). 

Sienkiewicz says reality programming will continue. “If you discussed, what are the major TV genres 15 years ago, it would have been dramas and sitcoms and that's basically it,” he says. “Right now, there's this thing called reality TV that seems just as essential. It's not going anywhere.”

Christian points out that cable networks are now producing hits in this genre, like Spike’s “Lip Sync Battle.”

“You have a lot more niche competition shows [on cable], whereas the networks are offering this kind of broad, family-friendly entertainment that appeals to 'everyone,’” he says. “Though not obviously everyone, because the ratings are down.” 

The almost decade-and-a-half run of “Idol” will continue to influence the TV industry as we move forward, says Sienkiewicz. “We will be looking at shows for quite a long time and tracing their lineage back to ‘American Idol,’” he says.

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