What's killing 'American Idol'

Story highlights

  • David Bianculli: "American Idol" will end after 15 seasons; the surprise is that it wasn't sooner
  • Fox flogged the show for so long that audiences got weary, he says
  • He says the show minted stars, but YouTube can do that, too

David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. He also is TV critic and guest host for NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

(CNN)The announcement that next year will be the last for Fox's "American Idol" came as quite a surprise, but only because that announcement should have been made about four seasons ago. It isn't a show whose time is passing. It's a show that, for a few years now, has been living on borrowed overtime.

David Bianculli
Give it credit, though. "American Idol," when it presents its final competition season in 2016, will have enjoyed a 15-year run on prime-time broadcast television, most of that time as the dominant series on TV.
It made, revived or enhanced the careers of various judges, starting with British import Simon Cowell and former pop star Paula Abdul. And it also launched the careers of several undeniably popular and talented singing stars, including winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood and also-rans Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert.
    It was Clarkson, as "American Idol" began in 2002, who personified the appeal and power of this new music competition series, imported and adapted from Britain's "Pop Idol" series.
    She wasn't as attractive as some of the other female singers, and even her competition in the Season 1 finale, Justin Guarini, was more of a pop idol in the pretty-face Davy Jones/Justin Bieber mold. But boy, could she sing. And when she released her first single, "A Moment Like This," after winning that September, it shot rapidly to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
    Fox had an instant hit on its hands, and it wasted no time in moving the show out of summer and into the heat of TV-season battle, where it became, for about a decade, a virtually unbeatable juggernaut. As is usually the case with networks, success was followed by greed, and "American Idol" began eating up as many hours of TV, spread over as many nights, as Fox could imagine.
    That was one factor that, over the long run, made the TV audience weary. But it wasn't the only one.
    As with most shows of this type, novelty eventually gave way to familiarity. A succession of replacement judges altered the program's chemistry (yes, you, Mariah Carey).
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    The departure of Cowell, the program's most caustic and honest judge, hurt the proceedings in more ways than one.
    An increasing number of underwhelming winners diluted the show's cachet, with the last nine winners since Underwood being less than stellar successes in the real music world after leaving the Idol nest. Really: Jordin Sparks? Lee DeWyze? And last year's winner, whose name is ... what? (Caleb Johnson. But you get my point.)
    For "American Idol" to have kept working, winning and dominating, it had to find more winners like Clarkson and Underwood -- and should have found some like Taylor Swift and, yes, Justin Bieber.
    The way he rose to popularity after being discovered on YouTube was a harbinger of things to come, showing one more path -- that of online video and social media buzz -- by which would-be singing stars could circumvent the "American Idol" path to celebrity.
    There's no opportunity to make money from "American Idol" reruns or from complete season box sets. The only justifiable reasons for the show are its huge ratings the first time around, especially in the coveted younger demographics, and for the subsequent record sales by the artists it discovers.
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    Throughout this decade, however, there's been no "big star" winner of "American Idol," and the ratings have fallen by 10% or more every season. What's worse, and more significant, is that the demographics have fallen even more drastically. "American Idol," which once attracted not only a huge TV audience but an astoundingly young one, now is appealing largely to an older crowd.
    These days, it's not your mother's TV show -- it's more likely to be your grandmother's. And next season, as they add final-year gimmicks to give the show a final sendoff, Fox might want to consider limiting the voting to rotary phones only.
    There's one other major reason for the slow but sure demise of "American Idol": rival networks offering similar competition.
    None of the other shows has fully improved upon the formula, but NBC's "The Voice" has eclipsed "Idol" in the ratings. It, too, though, is of more benefit to its judges than its contestants. The judges on "The Voice" are all bigger stars than when the show began, but name one winner of "The Voice" since its 2011 premiere. If you can, I'm betting you're a relative.
    What "The Voice" has in its opening rounds, though -- the thrill of the discovery of raw talent -- is what was strongest about "American Idol," throughout its run. Watching contestants compete on live TV week after week, as the stakes got progressively higher and the tension built, made a No. 1 TV series of CBS' "The $64,000 Question" in 1955, and the formula still worked well half a century later.
    But all things, especially on TV, must come to an end.
    "American Idol" deserves praise, as well as acknowledgment that it stayed a bit too long at the party. Few series, like few careers, get to boast of lasting for 15 years. Just ask the original first-year "Idol" co-host, Brian Dunkleman.