American Idol


A Rockin’ Reality Show

Year(s): 2002 – present
Network: Fox
Creator: Simon Fuller
Original Cast: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest

Summary: Music-star wannabes compete for a major record deal and a $1,000,000 prize.

If you’d told me five years ago that millions of viewers would tune in every week to watch people perform karaoke, I would’ve rolled my eyes and said, “What a cheap ratings stunt. It’ll never last.”

It’s a good thing such a conversation never happened, because I would’ve been dead wrong. In its fifth season as of this writing, American Idol shows no signs of slowing down, much to the delight of its parent network, Fox, and the dismay of Fox’s competitors. As NBC and CBS found out earlier this season, it’ll take more than figure skating or Grammy winners (let alone celebrity cooking) to knock American Idol off the ratings throne.

I Will Survive!

The predecessor of American Idol was the British show Pop Idol, which ran from 2001 to 2003. Simon Fuller, that show’s creator, imported the idea (as well as judge Simon Cowell) to the U.S. For the five people who have never seen the show, here is how things work:

1) People hoping to compete on the show appear before a preliminary panel.
2) The panel picks people to audition for the show’s judges (Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson).
3) After making comments, caustic or otherwise, to the singers, the judges decide who makes the initial cut.
4) Contestants are brought to Hollywood. Some of them are eliminated before they even get a chance to sing. The rest perform again, and are again subjected to praise and/or criticism. The judges do more eliminating, and those who remain — twelve men and twelve women, by design — advance to the semifinal round.
5) The semifinalists perform, and through audience voting are whittled down to twelve finalists.
6) The finalists perform, and through audience voting are eliminated one by one until one singer is left.

Musical melodrama

American Idol is cheesy, over-the-top and yet strangely addictive. In any other context, just the judges’ commentary would make me turn off the TV in disgust. But for some reason, the personalities of Cowell, Abdul, Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest add to the show’s appeal instead of taking away from it. Thanks to the little spats and rivalries between these characters, each episode takes on a bit of a soap-opera quality, providing lots of water-cooler fodder for fans. Have Seacrest and Abdul patched things up? How does Jackson manage to stay on everyone’s good side? What nasty jab will Cowell come up with next?

The singing performances themselves are fun to watch. No reality show can survive without good contestants, and American Idol does a stellar job of picking its contestants for maximum interest and drama. As with the judges, personality’s important, but talent — or the lack of it — also plays a part. The initial auditions often get attention in the way car wrecks do; the more appalling the accident, the harder it is to look away. I still remember one unfortunate soul doing a tone-deaf version of Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and Cowell’s subsequent remark that the auditioner was “possibly the worst singer in the world”.

The semifinals and finals, if less circusy, are still entertaining. Because of the fan voting, contestants do their utmost to impress the audience — dressing up, walking through the aisles, singing right to whichever camera is closest. And if that weren’t hard enough, factor in the challenges of singing different songs each episode (foreign-language ones this week, Elvis the next) and of dealing with the judges’ sometimes harsh evaluations. Also, since Fox is dedicated to getting viewers to keep tuning in, it turns each finalist elimination into its own episode, using material from previous performances, video, etc. to heighten the suspense and draw things out as … long … as … it … possibly … can.

Shameless? Manipulative? Yes, but it works, and it works pretty well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to clear my schedule for next week. I can’t wait to see Taylor doing Elvis.

American Idol Judge Changes

Kara DioGuardi replaces Paula Abdul (2009-2010)

Ellen DeGeneres replaces Simon Cowell (2010)

Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler replace DioGuardi and DeGeneres (2011 – present)

American Idol winners

2002: Kelly Clarkson

2003: Ruben Studdard

2004: Fantasia Barrino

2005: Carrie Underwood

2006: Taylor Hicks

2007: Jordin Sparks

2008: David Cook

2009: Kris Allen

2010: Lee DeWyze

2011: Scotty McCreary

American Idol runners-up

2002: Justin Guarini

2003: Clay Aiken

2004: Diana DeGarmo

2005: Bo Bice

2006: Katharine McPhee

2007: Blake Lewis

2008: David Archuleta

2009: Adam Lambert

2010: Crystal Bowersox

2011: Lauren Alaina

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