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How ‘American Idol’ Captured The American Dream


In 2001, a British gentleman retired from teaching manners and diplomacy to host a television series on the BBC. The concept was simple: give contestants the opportunity to sing their way through a series of rounds, let viewers vote, determine the winner, and reward that winner with a record deal with BMG.

The show, “Pop Idol,” was quite successful, though not wholly because of the music and audience participation. Instead, its success arose from one Simon Cowell, the former manners and diplomacy expert, and his penchant for delivering devastating defenestrations that regularly reduced contestants to tears.

Those defenestrations quickly became the stuff of legend, and in 2002 Cowell brought “Pop Idol” across the pond. “American Idol,” the stateside incarnation, featured the same legendary take-downs British viewers had come to know and love. Americans, despite our preference for football and not football, also came to know and love Cowell. Thus was born a ratings juggernaut that was at one time known as “Fox’s Death Star” due to its ability to destroy any show that aired in the same time slot. The Death Star stayed in orbit for 14 years, but its fifteenth will be its last trip. Fox announced Monday that it’s bringing “American Idol” to an end before rebel forces discover the thermal exhaust port.

Given that the show revolved around audience participation—that is, any rando with a phone or Internet connection and a desire to vote could share his opinion—let’s go to the audience to get a sense of the general sentiments about the end. Well, one audience—Twitter. While Twitter isn’t the whole audience, it is a decent cross-section that offers any rando with an Internet connection an opportunity to offer commentary.

What did Twitter have to say? Results were mixed. Some placed blame for the demise on this decision or that person, some quipped “American Idol is still on?” and some simply credited Cowell for creating a hugely successful show that enjoyed a long run.

The Votes Are In

Successful it was, with a rating of 12.6 for the 18 to 49 demographic during its peak. For those who didn’t study the music and entertainment business in college, that’s a key demographic and a really good rating for it. We’re talking in the neighborhood of 30 million viewers at the show’s zenith. And “American Idol” maintained that altitude for years. In fact, seasons two through ten were slam dunks. It wasn’t compared to the Death Star for no reasons.

‘American Idol’ chose not to burn out and is now in the fade.

In Season 11, things started to go south, and that slide has continued apace. On May 7, “American Idol” plunged to a record low ranking of 3.7, or roughly the same ranking as its American debut. Given this trend, Fox had little choice but to end it before it started losing money.

Much as Neil Young didn’t follow his own advice about burning out rather than fading away, “American Idol” chose not to burn out and is now in the fade. Rather than fade into obscurity, though, it will ignore Dylan Thomas in addition to Young. It will not rage, but instead go gently into that good night.

It’s not such a bad place to be. Had “American Idol” not been so successful, it wouldn’t have had opportunity to burn out or fade away. Thanks to Cowell’s tenacity, as well as his acid tongue, it was ridiculously successful. Maybe we Americans don’t like football, but a linguistic riot does capture our interest. While it’s tempting to blame Cowell and “American Idol” for the proliferation of reality television, the blame for that proliferation lies in ourselves. See the above numbers. Cowell offered us a concept; we feasted on it.

Simon Cowell as One of Horatio Alger’s Heroes

No, Cowell is not a monster, even if he breathes fire, but a great example of the American success story. Even if he is British. He’s an heir to Horatio Alger, albeit one whose own wealthy beneficiary was a little closer to his home and whose creation went a little farther than a comfortable middle-class existence. Cowell wasn’t one of Alger’s success stories, but one of the gentry who used his position to benefit others. Cowell took an idea, one I suspect didn’t actually work out as intended, and created a new genre.

Skip ‘discovering’ a new artist, with its inherent financial risk, and go straight to the consumers.

Now the hot game in town is “The Voice,” despite Adam Levine and that its ratings aren’t exactly astronomical. Nevertheless, the only major difference between “The Voice” and “American Idol” is that none of the judges on “The Voice” are prone to defenestration. As such, it’s still an example of Cowell’s legacy. With regard to “The Voice’s” ratings, it’s worth noting that only a few of the latter’s judges are capable of offering constructive criticism in plain English, so while the hurt feelings are fewer, so are opportunities for the contestants to grow. Maybe would-be entertainers don’t need to be destroyed if nonetheless imbued with the knowledge that it’s time for them to pursue a day job. Thus we’re back to Cowell and Alger.

Given that Cowell had a successful career in the music industry before crossing over to television and that his television concepts revolve around music, it’s quite possible that “Pop Idol” and then “American Idol” were ways to give potential audiences a chance to vote on artists whose releases they would buy. Skip “discovering” a new artist, with its inherent financial risk, and go straight to the consumers. Find out what they want ahead of time, while making a little money, and then sell it to them. That the shows themselves were so profitable was just gravy.

As it turned out, though, the show was the main serving, and the artists were just the gravy. Kelly Clarkson, winner of season one, remains the biggest seller, though others have had success. On the other hand, the show also produced Clay Aiken, the man who would not be senator, and these people you likely don’t remember. So either my suspicion is wrong or Cowell had himself a Bob Ross-style “happy accident.” Either way, it’s immaterial. Cowell created ridiculously profitable venture and offered an avenue to material gain to many others along the way.

In 1765, a group of angry British men decided they weren’t going to bite their tongues any longer and took action. In the process, they created a land of opportunity where anyone with passion and an idea could put that idea in motion. A land where anything is possible. In 2002, another angry British man arrived on our shores with a similar disregard for biting his tongue and an idea to put in motion. In the process, he created an empire, albeit not of the British variety, and proved that America is still a land of opportunity, a place in which passion and a notion can lift a man up.

“American Idol” is more than that, though. It also reminds us that success, while not permanent, is not limited to a fixed pie. One man’s success can ripple out and lift others. And while “American Idol” may not be your bag, and that’s cool because watching people who have no business singing get defenestrated isn’t necessarily a noble pursuit, it’s still the American Dream in living color. The show and its colorful creator deserve recognition for growing the pie and giving colorful characters an opportunity to claim a big ol’ slice for themselves.