It’s bad enough that American Idol‘s latest winner has been diagnosed with a throat ailment that’s probably tied into the show’s insistence of holding up Whitney, Mariah, and Celine as its Holy Trinity Of Divas Everyone Should Emulate. Now the LA Times is raining on the show’s parade even more, saying that even though ratings don’t seem to be down that much overall, they’ve plummeted enough among two key demographic groups–women ages 18-34 and kids ages 2-11–that the show’s producers should be somewhat worried, especially since last week’s episodes had some of the show’s lowest ratings since its first seasons. (That’s what happens when you kick off the resident hottie, even if he does wear ascots.) Is it because people are watching less TV? Are this year’s contestants as boring as Simon Cowell thinks? Or has the public just gotten tired of the Idol machine?
The conventional wisdom among TV producers and their accountants is that hit shows, no matter how popular, usually start delivering diminished ratings somewhere from Season 5 to Season 7. Seen that way, “Idol’s” apparent decline is adhering to form. Some fans are seeing the program as less essential than it was a year or two ago. How many times can Americans see Seacrest insult Simon Cowell, and vice versa, before they say, “Enough already”?
“It would be great if the ratings could stay in the high 20s or low 30s,” said executive producer Ken Warwick, referring to “Idol’s” customary viewership in the tens of millions. “But everything has a sell-by date. Everything.”
Warwick scoffed at Cowell’s notion, quoted in a recent Variety interview, that the show was suffering this year because the contestants lack “personality” and are making “safe” song choices.
That’s not to say, though, that Fox and the producers aren’t going to huddle at the end of the season and talk about making some changes. The network carefully weighs research on audience reactions to “Idol,” Beckman said. This season, executives noticed that the ratings dipped a bit during the audition phase, rebounded during the Hollywood rounds and then dropped to last week’s lows.
“We have to think about how it’s presented,” Beckman said of “Idol,” although he declined to speculate what sorts of changes might be in the offing: “These are questions you naturally ask when a show is in its seventh year.”
I’d argue that updating the musical calibration of the show overall would help–for example, thinking that David Cook’s microwaved grunge is “original” is to be expected for a show that thinks “the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” is a surefire hit to snag viewers, but it may not be the best long-term strategy for moving the show forward into the next decade. Although given that the show does air on Fox–and the network does have an investment in at least keeping it around–what’s more likely than the show suddenly getting out of the Clive Davis School Of Acceptable Pop Music is some sort of hybrid between Idol and its current rising-star game show, The Moment Of Truth. Think of what the Antonella Barba episode would be like!