'American Idol' crowns final winner

Story highlights

  • The star-making reality show ends its 15-season run
  • The judges' table seemed surprised by the winner
  • Host Ryan Seacrest utters surprising final words

(CNN)"American Idol" ended its run Thursday night with a win that left even the judges surprised.

Mississippi farm boy Trent Harmon beat out fellow Mississippi resident La'Porsha Renae to become the winner of "Idol's" 15th and final season.
    Renae had been heavily favored to win, having spent almost the entire season being lauded by the judges and fans for her strong vocals. But Harmon, another fan favorite, gave her more than a run for her money during Wednesday night's competitive show.
    After host Ryan Seacrest announced 25-year-old Harmon as the winner, judge Harry Connick Jr. could be seen mouthing the word "Wow."
    It was a big end for an equally big night, with many of the reality competition's alumni returning to take to the stage. Big names like former contestant and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson were joined by some of the characters, like rejected contestant William Hung, who diehard fans remember from over the years.
    Audience members were thrilled with the surprise appearance of Simon Cowell, who joined his fellow original "Idol" judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul on stage to pay tribute to Seacrest and thank fans for their support over the years.
    Inside the Dolby Theatre, the two-hour broadcast had the feel of a festive funeral, with audience members hyper-aware that they were attending the show's final act.
    Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson pre-recorded a medley of some of her biggest hits, because she is near to giving birth to her second child. Country superstar and season 4 winner Carrie Underwood performed with one of this season's judges, Keith Urban. Underwood later returned to the stage to sing a rousing rendition of her single "Something In The Water."
    Urban wasn't the only judge to get his groove on: Jennifer Lopez used the finale as an opportunity to debut her new single, "Ain't Your Mama," before launching into what appeared to be a mini-version of her "All I Have" Las Vegas show.
    The show opened with President Barack Obama using the audience votes on "Idol" to point out the need to register to vote.
    "Not all of us can sing like Kelly Clarkson but all of our voices matter," the President said while encouraging folks to head over to Vote.gov to register. "This show reached historic heights not only because Americans watched it, but because you participated in its success."
    That was followed by blasts from the past, including host Brian Dunkleman, who famously left the show after the first season, as well as a bevy of former contestants who performed.
    Longtime fans of the show who lucked into tickets sat among past contestants and Hollywood executives and shared their disappointment about the end. In a nod to the show's importance to the Fox network, 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch attended the finale with his new bride, Jerry Hall.
    The show ended after 15 seasons, juggernaut ratings (which fell off in recent years), thousands of aspiring superstars and way too many covers of Whitney Houston songs.
    La'Porsha Renae and Trent Harmon were the final two contestants on season 15 of "American Idol."
    Thursday night's sendoff was without a doubt a historic moment for television.
    "Idol" was a shining star, more popular than any other regularly scheduled American TV series since the turn of the century.
    It smothered the competition. It changed the Fox network's fortunes and spawned countless competitors and ripoffs around the world. In TV, that's magic.
    Even today, "Idol" is a force to be reckoned with. Part one of the finale on Wednesday averaged 10 million viewers, impressive by 2016 standards but still a reminder of how far it's fallen. A decade ago, "Idol" drew 20 million, 30 million, even 40 million viewers.
    Fox set out to try to recapture some of the magic by bringing back the two biggest stars in the show's history, Clarkson and Underwood, along with several dozen other contestants.
    The broadcast was held at the Dolby Theater, which is the same Hollywood theater where Clarkson was crowned the winner at the end of season 1, in summer 2002.
    Originally hosted by Dunkleman and Seacrest, "Idol" went on to become a part of the pop culture zeitgeist. It was a celeb-making machine for many of those connected to it, including Seacrest, who was made the solo host after the first season.
    It remains to be seen if Harmon will also find fame, but his win was certainly fodder for lots of debate on social media.
    So why is "Idol" ending now? Because it kept getting more and more expensive to produce while reaching fewer and fewer people. Fox has wagered that retiring the brand makes more sense than trying to keep it going.
    People associated with the show admit that the time feels right for a series finale.
    And yet some of them are confident this is just a break.
    The show's creator, Simon Fuller, is already plotting a comeback, telling The Hollywood Reporter that the next iteration will feel more "interactive" and have a "youthful glow."
    " 'Idol' will certainly be coming back, for sure," he said.
    Seacrest seemed to confirm that Thursday night when he ended the show by saying "Goodnight America, for now."