9 reasons why 'American Idol' is still No. 1

In this May 20, 2009 file photo originally released by Fox, finalists Adam Lambert, left, Kris Allen, center, and host Ryan Seacrest are seen during the season finale of American Idol in Los Angeles.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 9:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 9:54 a.m.

Nearly every "best of the decade" list had one thing in common: "American Idol."


New ‘Idol'

  • What: Season 9 two-night premiere

  • When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

  • Where: Fox

Every reputable media outlet and TV and pop culture writer pointed out how the show pretty much changed the face of TV and music. Without the concept, and subsequent popularity of, "American Idol," other talent/competitive reality shows such as "Dancing with the Stars," "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" might not be around.

Despite a slight decline in ratings since its sixth season, "Idol" has consistently been TV's No. 1 rated show for years. Since the conclusion of the first season, contestants have sold approximately 46 million albums just in the United States, according to NielsenSoundScan. Last season, 26.3 million people watched the show on Tuesdays, and the finale sparked a record of nearly 100 million votes. The show is set to run until 2011, but if negotiations work out between Fox and "Idol" big wigs, the show could stay on the air through 2014.

So what's the secret?

With Season 9 of "American Idol" premiering Tuesday, this writer (and self-proclaimed "Idol" fan) came up with a few reasons — nine to be exact, one in honor of each season — why this show works and how it keeps viewers glued to their TVs for 20 weeks.

1 AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION "American Idol" is one of the few shows that offers so much public involvement and power. They don't hold casting calls or select the contestants from behind the scenes. Anyone has the chance to be on the show as it travels the nation hosting open auditions. Hundreds show up, sleeping outside and filling stadiums and convention centers. People also like the premise of the show — the contestants only advance based on viewers' text and phone votes. This fun concept takes the viewer from simply watching a TV show to actually participating and being a part of it. They no longer observe; they have control. People like power, and "Idol" executives had the foresight to recognize that.

2 SIMON COWELL The British entertainment mogul keeps this show alive with his rude, stinging comments and pompous personality. Although harsh and quite blunt, underneath it all,Cowell's honesty usually is right on the mark. Fans either love him, hate him or love to hate him. For many, the music executive and TV producer is one of the reasons viewers tune in each week. And watching the catty "feud" between Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest is just about as entertaining as the contestants. Rumors are flying right now about whether Cowell will return after his contract ends in 2010. He reportedly makes about $35 million a year to judge "Idol." Let's hope his salary demands don't cause him to meet with the same fate as ex-judge Paula Abdul.

3. Suspense: "Idol" fans know the drill. Dramatic lights. Tense music. Terrified contestants. And host Ryan Seacrest stretching out the results show with nail-biting pauses and frequent commercial breaks. As annoying and frustrating as it is, all the dramatics have added to the excitement factor of the show.

4. Theme weeks: Unlike "Star Search" in the past, "Idol" contestants can't sing whatever they want. Instead, each week, producers have them sing songs from different music genres (pop, country, rock, etc.), from different music eras or by a specific recording artist. The beauty of this setup is the audience gets something new each week, and fans of one type of music or all types don't feel left out. In the beginning, it seemed bizarre that producers dictated their song choices, but in the end, it saves the viewers from hearing Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey songs each week. Plus, whether it's Stevie Wonder, the Beatles or disco week, it's exciting to see which songs from such large catalogs the singers choose and how they give it a new twist.

5. Live results shows: When "Idol" is in season, Wednesday night is prime time. It's the night that historically draws in the most viewers. For one, the studio and TV audience gets to witness a gamut of emotions in real time as contestants find out if they hang on for one more week or if their journey has ended on the "Idol" stage. Secondly, the result show features cool, popular artists performing their latest hit singles — a concept other talent shows have started to incorporate in their shows, too.

6. Celebrities sell: American culture can't get enough of celebrities, and "Idol" banked on this when it began bringing famous faces on the show. For seasons two through four, stars showed up as guest judges on performance nights. Since the sixth season, celebrities have served as "mentors" who give advice to the contestants about their song selection for the upcoming show. Sometimes the regular judges' opinions can get a bit repetitive, so it's refreshing to hear what singing legends and famous writers and producers with solid credentials have to say about the hopeful singers. Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, songwriter Diane Warren, Dolly Parton, Andrea Bocelli and countless others have appeared on the show.

7. Controversy: "Idol" has proven that there is no such thing as bad publicity. From allegations of drug use to scandalous photos, "Idol" controversies seem to be fuel for bigger ratings. Some of the early headlines were in Season 2 when big-voiced Frenchie Davis (now a star on the theater stage) was disqualified because of topless photos she'd taken in the past. That same season, Corey Clark was disqualified for not telling the show about his arrest record. A few years later, he publicly said he'd once had a sexual relationship with then-judge Paula Abdul. The sixth season of "Idol" brought more drama in the department of revealing photos after racy pictures of contestant Antonella Barba hit the Internet. However, she wasn't kicked off the show, sparking even more controversy as accusations of racism spread. Then there was Abdul's wacky behavior on the show, causing speculations that she was abusing drugs or alcohol.

8. Gimmicks/surprises: It seems this has been one of the biggest ways "Idol" has kept audiences on their toes. Over the years, producers shook up the show with changes such as increasing the age limits for contestants and splitting the finalists up by gender. In Season 7, for the first time, contestants could play instruments during their performance. Since then, pianos, guitars and even a ukulele have been seen on stage. Last season was full of surprises for the contestants and viewers: "Idol" added another judge, Kara DioGuardi. During the wildcard pick, 13 contestants advanced instead of the usual 12. Also, the "judge's save" was implemented. If a contestant was eliminated, this move allowed the judges to overrule the voters and save the person for one week. But all the judges had to agree on the save and the person being saved could not be saved again. Needless to say, Season 8 had plenty of nail-biting moments. This season, the judges' table will see even more changes when Ellen DeGeneres joins the show.

9. Really bad singers: For viewers, listening to contestants who couldn't hold a tune in a bucket is torture. But the show has realized some people enjoy watching delusional people try to sing their way to stardom. In recent seasons, the judges even picked them to be semi-finalists, sometimes stealing the spotlight from contestants with talent. Sanjaya Malakar, anyone? Oh, and let's not forget Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais. But most of the tone-deaf singers find their 15 minutes of fame on the audition episodes. Two words: William Hung.

Contact Lashonda Stinson Curry at 374-5038 or lashonda.stinson@ gvillesun.com.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top