Is the end nigh for American Idol?

The 12-year-old US format seems old, tired and ready for retirement, especially with the success of fresher shows like The Voice

For 13 seasons now, singing talent show American Idol has used a seemingly fool-proof formula for television success: find unknown singers from across the country, have them compete against one another each week in live shows, and crown one of the fresh-faced crooners a winner. But after numerous judge changes, plummeting ratings and too many horrible auditions to count, American Idol seems to have outgrown its glory years.


As I watched the premiere of the 13th season this Saturday on Channel 5, something was off. Sure, it was a typical audition round episode, filled with embarrassing attempts at singing, video segments of contestants’ emotional stories and the occasional ticket to Hollywood. Besides the panel of judges, which now consists of Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr, nothing really seemed different from previous seasons. And maybe that’s its biggest problem.

As an American who has grown up with the show, I really, truly want to like American Idol. In its early years, my family, along with every family I knew, would gather around our television set each week to watch our favourite contestants take the stage. Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson essentially became part of the family for half the year. Season premieres felt like visiting an old friend after a long time apart, and season finales were always a cause for celebration.

Season 8 is around where I stopped watching, and according to ratings so did the rest of America. During its height in popularity in Season 6, season premieres of the show could draw a massive audience of more than 37 million. But since then, each season has seen a consistent drop in viewer ratings. Last year’s finale, for example, saw a 44% drop in viewership for adults aged 18 to 49. 

Besides the tired formula, two factors seem to have contributed to the decline in ratings: the show’s revolving door of judges and the success of other singing competition shows. In the past five years, American Idol has seen the departure of all of its original judges and the addition of eight new ones, few of whom lasted more than a couple of seasons. And frankly, no recent judge panel combination has truly worked. Winning the most unqualified singing competition judge, was chat show host Ellen DeGeneres, only on the show for one series. Last season, it was Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj’s ongoing battle of egos that made more headlines than any of the show’s contestants. 

In 2011, new vocal talent show The Voice premiered and gave Americans a breath of fresh air. Finally, we saw a group of judges – Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera – who were actually likeable and qualified. The show made a point of never showing purposefully bad auditions, and the blind audition formula brought the focus back to what made us all fall in love with American Idol in the first place: talented, undiscovered singers.

All that being said, American Idol still has something going for it. The season 13 premiere ‘only’ pulled in a viewership of 15.19 million in America, but those are still impressive numbers that beat out the majority of primetime US shows. In 13 years, American Idol contestants have earned a combined 17 American Music Awards, 12 Grammy Awards and even an Oscar. Kelly Clarkson, the show’s first winner, still remains at the top of the music charts. On the other hand, The Voice still hasn’t given us a winner that’s amounted to much of anything after the season finale (there’s a definite parallell there between the The X Factor and the UK version of The Voice).

With its continually falling ratings and the fact that host Ryan Seacrest’s contract expires this season, the end might be very close for the American mainstay. Luckily, this group of judges actually seem to like each other, and new addition Harry Connick Jr is injecting much-needed humour back into the show. However, Idol still needs to do something drastic to grab the attention of America again. Swivelling chairs may not be necessary, but some sort of change to the show’s production or formula could breathe new life into the currently stale show. If not, at least we’ll have one more season’s worth of awful auditions to laugh at.