"American Idol" judges, from left, Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson, and host Ryan Seacrest take part in a panel discussion on the show during the FOX Broadcasting Company Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
LOS ANGELES — Everybody’s shouting — even Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson.
It easy to tell that the excitement over “American Idol” is back. As the two judges of the television reality singing competition entered the press tent at the PaleyFest in Beverly Hills last week, reporters screamed questions and photographers yelled, “Look over here.”
Why Tyler, dressed in leopard-skin pants, and Jackson, adorned with a brightly colored scarf, came in so pumped up is probably a measure of their outsized personalities, but with ratings up for the show’s 10th season and with what many are calling the best group of finalists in years, there is every reason for fans of “American Idol” to shout.
Yet with all the hype over the years, people probably forget that the show wasn’t an instant phenomenon. When “American Idol” debuted in June 2002, it was to less than 10 million viewers and even after its seventh week was still only pulling in similar numbers. That’s very respectable but hardly the ratings juggernaut it is now. (The March 9 broadcast brought in more than 24 million viewers to top last week’s Nielsen ratings.)
However, since its first season, finale viewership has usually topped more than 20 million. The high point was the Season 2 finale with more than 38 million people tuning in.
There has been a steady erosion in the ratings since Season 6, however, and how much of a real impact “American Idol” has really had on popular culture is debatable. In a quieter moment, bona fide rocker Tyler admits that he didn’t bother to watch the show when it first came on.
“I didn’t think that anybody could become an idol because of a game show,” he says. “I’d only tuned in a couple of times, and thought, ‘What kind of c— is this?’ I didn’t allow myself to get emotionally involved in it.”
Tyler says what he didn’t understand was “the ownership of the American people watching these kids, getting passionately into their characters and watching whoever they love come out of the wormhole.”
As many have pointed out, “Idol” was hardly a new concept. Talent shows have been around since the early days of vaudeville and radio, and there were all kinds of gimmicks that allowed fans to get involved in those shows then. But the Fox hit is “ingenious in how it uses the genre,” says Robert J. Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
He adds that all you have to do to find a measuring stick is look at similar shows that have failed — like the 2003 version of “Star Search” with Arsenio Hall: “That was terrible.”
There are several keys that contribute to the success of “Idol.” First there are the audition segments, which are intriguing as many of the competitors usually flame out, although, as Thompson notes, the show has toned down its schadenfreude element during the last few seasons. (Remember William Hung’s tone-deaf rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs”?)
Then when the public gets involved with voting, “Idol” turns into a “good old-fashioned Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movie, a let’s-put-on-a-show kind of a wholesome sort of thing,” Thompson says.
Of course, like other reality shows, “Idol” “exploits” its contestants’ stories, says executive producer Ken Warwick, who laughs and quickly corrects himself with the word “tells.” On Wednesday, the 12 finalists were asked to sing a song from the year that they were born, which allowed for little clips of their parents talking about them as babies.
Despite the seeming camaraderie among them — the finalists all live in one house — the contestants also know there is something at stake, says Phil Graham, a senior vice president at BMI, an industry group that collects fees on behalf of its songwriters. “I think the emotion that the kids have, that competitive tension is real. They know there’s a big opportunity if they can get in the top of that group,” he notes.
The “Idol” contestants are genuinely talented, though they may be rough around the edges and not yet know how to sell a song. That is a major difference between it and other reality shows that feature people who are good at being on reality shows — like the cast of “Jersey Shore” — but who otherwise may not be that interesting, says Thompson.
The proof is how many finalists have gone on to have solid careers or better, including Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, who was eliminated fairly early in season three, and hit-makers like Kelly Clarkson, the season-one winner, and Carrie Underwood, the season-three champ.
While Thompson doesn’t think that “Idol” has had the impact on the music industry that MTV did, he believes the show has become a significant factor in creating stars, something “incredibly important in an era where music has become so incredibly fragmented.”
He doubts that in one of the classes he teaches — some 150 students — he could find one song that all of them had in common on their iPods.
Warwick says that one of the things he is proudest about in doing the show is that it has reintroduced some great songs to the public. He tells of being shocked when one eventual winner of the competition didn’t know how George Gershwin’s classic “Summertime” went. Thompson was surprised at how many of the young singers during a show this season didn’t know any Beatles songs.
“People think that the youngsters of today don’t know their music heritage,” says Warwick. “I like to think that occasionally we bring it back to America.”
Graham says that when “Idol” does something like a Motown night, it helps turn audiences on to the legendary songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. “From a songwriter’s perspective, we are thrilled that there are those opportunities for older catalogs to be re-exposed.”
But the show has an impact for today’s songwriters as well. While two of BMI’s clients are Underwood and Chris Daughtry, who finished in the top four, few of the contestants actually write their own material. “Idol” is essentially a performance show, and over the years it has never produced unique singer-songwriter artists like Joni Mitchell or Bruce Springsteen. In addition, this year the contestants won’t be seen playing instruments as much as last season, when it seemed like everyone had a guitar.
“Last season we got into a situation where kids hid behind their instruments,” says Warwick. There will be exceptions, though. On Wednesday, one of the favorites, 20-year-old Casey Adams, thumped an electric bass while singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Some of the finalists want to pen their own tunes; so some will eventually work with established songwriters. Others simply need material and will be shopping around. Since many of the finalists’ post-“Idol” albums do fairly well — especially in a world of declining record sales — that can mean a lot for the income of a songwriter. “It’s a good testament to the exposure the contestants get on the show,” says Graham.
It’s interesting to note that five of the 12 finalists this season are 20 or younger, which means that “Idol” has been around for a good chunk of their lives. (The oldest is 26.) So they see the show as the path to success rather than the old, traditional way of working your way up by playing small gigs.
“You know, there are no clubs anymore. I wish there were. I wish I could represent for my era, but my era’s over,” says Tyler, 62. “The way it was back then, isn’t how it is now ... . So it’s all about however you can get heard, get it out there. You’ve gotta have the right song and you better be good.”
But in a couple of different ways “American Idol” is a like a club. It gives audiences — without having to leave their living rooms — an opportunity to catch the type of new talent they might only have been able to see at a small coffeehouse halfway across the country.
Despite all the recent hoopla, “American Idol” isn’t close to being the kind of water-cooler stuff of 30 to 40 years ago. The show’s current ratings, Thompson points out, would have put it on the cusp of cancellation back then. But the new judges — Tyler and Jennifer Lopez — have helped give the show new life, and even longtime judge Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest seem looser and more fun this season.
Even Simon Cowell, who had been one of the show’s attractions as its resident cranky judge, admitted in a recent CNN interview that this year’s show is better than last year’s. “It feels to me they’ve got their energy back, they’re confident, they’re competitive,” says Cowell, who departed after last season for his own talent show, “The X Factor.”