'American Idol': Will another TV show ever experience the same success?

'American Idol' returns for its final season on Jan. 6. The show was once a ratings smash but has gotten much lower ratings in recent years. 

Michael Becker/Fox/AP
The current judges on 'American Idol' are Keith Urban (l.), Jennifer Lopez (center), and Harry Connick Jr. (r.).

The incredibly popular singing competition “American Idol” is drawing to a close after 15 years, with the first episode of the final season of “Idol” debuting on Jan. 6. 

In its heyday, the show experienced massive TV ratings. While the extent to which the winner of “Idol” experienced success has varied season by season, in its early days it was a ratings juggernaut. The Idol season finale shows consistently pulled in 22-38 million viewers until the decline began in Season 11 (see Billboard's chart). But it’s been a long time since “Idol” crowned a household name.

Meanwhile, NBC’s “The Voice,” which is also a music competition, albeit with a different format, has become a ratings hit itself. 

As “Idol” returns, those at Fox are no doubt hoping the publicity surrounding a final season will attract more viewers than those who tuned in last year, with the first part of the Season 13 finale becoming the lowest-rated installment in the show’s history. 

With the prevalence of cable and streaming shows, expectations around TV audience size have changed a lot since “Idol” came on the air in 2002. The show experienced its highest ratings with the Season 2 finale, when Ruben Studdard took the crown and 38 million viewers watched him do it. 

In our current TV age, can any program experience anything like those ratings again?

Reliably one-off major events like the Super Bowl and the Oscars are still experiencing massive audience numbers, of course. Last year’s NFL football showdown saw record-breaking ratings, with more than 114 million viewers watching. And while Oscars ratings last year were gloomy in comparison to other years, they were still almost as good as that Season 2 “Idol” finale, with more than 37 million viewers.

Pro football is also consistently strong TV draw. But even “Sunday Night Football” is far behind the highest-rated episode of “Idol,” with the program drawing an average of more than 20 million total viewers during the 2014-2015 TV season.

To continue the comparison, one of the biggest broadcast ratings smashes of our time, the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” has averaged almost the same size audience as NFL football, with an average of about 19 million viewers for the 2014-2015 TV season.

Was “Idol” just a phenomenon that will never be seen again? Perhaps. But comparing the success of “Idol” to the success of “Voice,” a still-running musical competition show, is also interesting. NBC’s “Voice” is definitely a hit, but its average for the 2014-2015 TV season was a little more than 13 million viewers, a far cry from that 2003 highest-rated “Idol” episode.

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