With apologies to host Ryan Seacrest: This isn’t American Idol.
Sure, the powerful Idol brand will be back Sunday in a new home on ABC (8 ET/PT), but it’s more exhumation than revival for a once-great music competition that was fading fast when Fox mercifully called it quits two years ago. It should have been allowed to rest in peace.
This is zombie American Idol, a sad shadow of the fresh, fun phenomenon that took the country by storm in 2002, powering a reality-TV wave that included top hits Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Simon Fuller’s creation was a what-the-heck summer experiment, not expected to survive fall’s first freeze. But it had the underdog charm of the show’s young singers, and provided a bonding experience for a nation seeking hope after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Despite a gauzy, flag-draped depiction of America concocted by British producers, the original had some bite. Early Simon Cowell may be too mean for today’s risk-averse, hug-it-out star judges, but the guy — and those behind the scenes who found and cultivated singers — knew talent.
The singing contest became TV’s dominant show, averaging more than 30 million viewers at its peak.
In a 2016 eulogy, I praised Idol as a catchy reinvention of the talent show that introduced viewers to future stars (including Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson), something The Voice and other U.S. knockoffs generally haven’t done. (Exception: Fifth Harmony on Fox’s short-lived The X Factor — Cowell again).
But even Idol couldn’t produce superstars after a while, as fragmentation of both the music and TV businesses eroded the star-making platform and many young hopefuls went straight to YouTube.
As Idol’s ratings plummeted and judges’ salaries skyrocketed, Fox made a business decision to end the show. Nostalgic celebration seemed to be the main focus of the 15th and (we thought) final season.
Nobody — except maybe kids too young to try out for the original and star judges eyeing multimillion-dollar paychecks — was screaming for more Idol when it sang its last note.
The faded phenomenon had run its course. Ending it was the right move; even those advocating a revival thought it needed to take a long break to recharge creatively and give people a chance to actually miss it.
But the Idol brand still matters in a noisy, crowded entertainment world where new projects (like Fox’s The Four) struggle for attention. Networks think the husk has financial value, as Fox and NBC also looked into revival rights, but some question its profit potential considering production costs, judges’ salaries and ratings projections.
As part of Disney, ratings-challenged ABC, which could use a hit, knows the value of
cloning branding. The Marvel Cinematic Universe now has so many superheroes that it’s not clear who’s left to be rescued, and Star Wars seems to be rivaling Starbucks in its franchising activities. Idol is another splashy title that everyone knows.
Diminished ratings that would have caused heart attacks in Idol‘s heyday are still likely to be higher than for whatever else might have aired in the time slot. And Idol can be turned into a Disney marketing platform: The taped-auditions premiere finds a way to cram in a testimonial to Disney World.
Big stars are recognizable brands, too, which explains the signing of Katy Perry — Idol’s $25 Million Dollar Woman, according to estimates in news reports. Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan bring star-power as judges, but success is based on chemistry, as the original illustrated.
Idol was first touted as “The Search for a Superstar,”and it delivered on that bold promise. Does anyone remotely believe the new Idol will create a star? Before you answer, try naming the last five Idol champs.
Instead of trying to build the next great music competition, a risk with long odds but a potentially huge payoff, ABC is playing it safe with a familiar name that doesn’t break any new ground and, at best, probably becomes The Voice Lite.
The iconic show deserved better.