Reflecting on a Cultural Phenomenon

Although it’s been waning in ratings and influence in recent years, now that the sun is setting on American Idol, it’s only appropriate to reflect on what the show has achieved: a significant paradigm shift that created a whole new type of enthusiasm for music, and even more importantly, did so during a time in history when the music business was reeling from illegal downloading and desperately needed it.

At the height of its popularity, Idol was drawing audiences of nearly 40 million for its finales, and during its 13-year run this show has minted numerous bankable stars—something the many competitors formed in its long shadow have yet to accomplish. The show launched talent that went on to long-term careers; whether they “won” their season or not, their names now all too familiar in the American pop lexicon—Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, Katherine McPhee, Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Fantasia, Jordin Sparks, and Jennifer Hudson.

And even if all of these Idols didn’t stay on the charts, their genuine talent level, combined with a newly anointed celebrity status from Idol’s cultural significance, created a lane that led them on other successful paths, including Broadway (Constantine Maroulis, Justin Guarini, Frenchie Davis) and, in the case of Clay Aiken, even beyond that.

In 2014, Aiken ran for a seat in congress for North Carolina and came in second to incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers. The Runner-Up, a documentary series that chronicled his campaign journey, debuted on Esquire Network earlier this month, and Aiken is running for a seat again next year. During his appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher to speak about campaign finance reform, Maher was actually listening. “I’ve never watched American Idol,” he admitted, “but I admire you getting into politics.”

“I’m using my voice in a different way now,” Aiken told him.

In more ways than one, this was one of the most influential shows in the history of television. By Season 6, American Idol was the most-watched series among all viewers, averaging 30 million and collecting more than 570 million votes for contestants and 65 million text messages. It was the most lucrative multimedia property of all time and the defining tentpole of the Fox Network. Creator/producer Simon Fuller of 19 Entertainment and Freemantle Media, who owned the rights to Idol, built a franchise worth more than $2.5 billion in value that regularly brought in $500 million a year in ad revenue and $30-$50 million in core sponsorship packages.

Idol was such a force, in fact, that rivals ABC, NBC and CBS would regularly program around it. Although it wasn’t the first call-in show ever, the level of audience participation was unprecedented. In the first season alone, Idol collected 110 million votes and, by 2012, more votes than were cast in the U.S. Presidential election.

However, all shows have their peaks, and then the dreaded valleys. Starting in Season 8 after a judges’ panel shake-up, the problems began. As Idol’s ratings cratered, heads inevitably rolled. In 2013, longtime producer Nigel Lythgoe was fired, and just a year later, the corporate boss—Fox’s chairman of entertainment Kevin Reilly (who had been on the job since the show’s peak year in 2007)—also exited.

But let’s not forget host Ryan Seacrest, the only member of the entire cast to be there for all 15 seasons. When Seacrest started as host, he was the afternoon drive personality for Clear Channel AC station Star 98.7. During the inaugural season of Idol, I was a Program Director in the Los Angeles cluster and attended several tapings, having become an instant geek-fan. After repeatedly watching how charismatic, natural, and relatable Seacrest was onstage with these kids, I was the first in an eventual chorus of voices within the company that recommended he take over mornings for Rick Dees.

Since then Seacrest— through his own savvy and a legendary non-stop work ethic—has followed in the footsteps of broadcasting’s eternal greats, like Dees, Casey Kasem and Dick Clark, handled these huge transitions brilliantly with ease and grace and also formed one of today’s most powerful television production companies. Now creating successful programming ventures just like his own Idol Merv Griffin did, Seacrest has become a force in entertainment and pop culture behind the scenes. He’s American Idol’s greatest success story of all.

Whether or not shows such as X-Factor and The Voice—or even scripted ones that came in the wake of Idol mania, like Glee—will launch more music superstars is beside the point. What matters is that American Idol spawned a new movement in reality television that collectively fosters an overall passion for music. They keep the art of music top of mind and the drama of music front and center stage, and they add badly needed value to music, by reminding us why we are all so entertained and enraptured by music.

“We had a blast!” Simon Cowell recently said in a statement. “Me, Paula, Randy, Ryan—thanks to the fans we were able to make some great shows and found some amazing artists. Fox took a risk on a brand new show and I want to thank them for giving us the opportunity. They really were great times.”

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