‘It May Be Time To Turn The Lights Out On Idol,’ Writes Author of ‘American Idol: The Untold Story’ (EXCLUSIVE GUEST BLOG)

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Writing exclusively for Celebuzz, Richard Rushfield — the author of ‘American Idol: The Untold Story’ — explains why Simon Cowell’s ‘The X Factor’ is the heir apparent in the talent show genre and argues that while Idol’s time could be up, it’s not entirely the show’s fault.

For years, with every twist and turn in its backstage adventure, reporters were ready to write American Idol’s obituary. From the Corey Clark affair, to Chris Daughtry’s defeat, to Simon Cowell’s departure, American Idol has been declared dead enough times to fill up several graveyards. And yet it keeps on ticking, still, after its eleventh season, the number one show on television.

But this time, there is reason to believe that the coffins being built for Idol may not be entirely useless. After a slew of troubles from falling ratings to an aging audience to the “White Guy problem”, Idol finds itself amid yet another shake-up with no clear place to go. It’s a corner Idol’s been in before and it has always found a way out.

With troubles looming from all sides, it may be getting time to think about turning out the lights on the most successful and influential show in television history.

As it surveys the landscape, Idol’s biggest enemy is its own success. When the show debuted in 2002, music shows didn’t exist on network prime time. And in the age of Friends, unscripted, no-holds-barred shows featuring judges who “told the truth” were unheard of. Further, the idea that a TV game show could create performing stars was literally laughed at when Idol first claimed it would do just that.

A decade later, all these pieces of the Idol formula have been so widely imitated and copied that one forgets it was Idol which created them in the first place. Every bit of the show — the three judge panel, the mean judge, the contest as “American Dream”, the winners going on to outside careers, the presence of music and unscripted competitions on prime-time television — are everywhere you look. It is much harder for Idol to reinvigorate itself around a genre that is now so common, it’s becoming routine.

It must do this amidst the show’s natural aging and a disappearing audience. Idol ratings dropped a massive 23 percent last season — an amount generally considered catastrophic — and even though still atop the heap, the show has a long way to fall. Worse still, as viewers are disappearing, Idol’s audience is graying rapidly. Its median viewer age is 48 years old, 14 years older than when the show debuted. In part, this is the natural aging process: almost any show’s audience grows older the longer it is on the air, and Idol has been on the air for a very long time.

This aging, however, becomes a vicious circle. As hard as it is to attract young viewers to a show that has been around awhile, if the show is in the hands of their parents, or their parent’s parents, it can be very hard to young it up indeed. And watching Idol lately one has gotten the feeling that this is your grandfather’s singing contest.

To start with, the show has relied heavily on golden oldies for their song choices, with more contemporary styles like hip hop being virtually invisible on the Idol stage. Watching the show some nights, the performances felt much closer to some stodgy sort of pageant than the freewheeling Top 40’s world of today. Further, the judges of the last two years have seemed from another time and place in music history. And with the audience who is left controlling the voting, the safest acts tend to find their way through while anyone with a bit of contemporary edge finds their head lopped off very quickly. This has led to the infamous White Guy with the Guitar Problem — wherein five consecutive young men of that description have won the championship; sending a clear message that anyone who is not a cute white boy is competing for second place at best.

From top to bottom, there has been little about the show that spoke to anyone over six or under sixty. Which creates a dilemma — if you attempt to radically shake up the show, you will alienate the blue hairs left watching. But if you keep it the same, your audience is bound for the nursing home and eventually sure to lose their remote control privileges.

What has been the obvious answer — bring in some glamor via the judges’ table — seems to have run its course. J.Lo and Steven Tyler gave Idol an unexpected bump when they first appeared and the curiosity factor brought new viewers in. But once the novelty wore off, the show was stuck with judges who seemed more concerned with preening, protecting their nice guy images and promoting their outside careers then they were — as Simon Cowell had done — about injecting real drama into the television show. Further, as far as glamorous youth-oriented judges go, Idol will have a very hard time beating the Britney/Demi duo joining X Factor this fall.

So what to do? Well, clearly this can’t go on and if there is to be an Idol in the future, a reboot is needed. But just like we can’t miss you if you won’t go away, we can’t reboot you while you’re still standing on the stage. To announce another makeover, so soon after the post-Cowell revamping, will smack of desperation, and desperation does not help a TV juggernaut stay strong.

Instead, why doesn’t Idol take a year or two or three off for a well deserved rest, rethink the medium, let X Factor and The Voice have their moments instead of fighting with the pretenders. Then come back years from now, rested, ready, and from top to bottom a totally new, energetic show that lives in today’s music world. It’s hard to say goodbye, but a lot easier if one knows it won’t be forever.

Richard Rushfield is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and launched the successful Idol Tracker blog at Los Angeles Times, where he formerly served as entrainment editor while covering several seasons of the FOX show.

How do you think American Idol should try to bounce back? Sound off in comments.

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