For those who haven’t tapped into the reality television world for a few years, a quick glance at the TV Guide listings can come as a bit of a shock. Survivor is still on the air?
I’ve been asking that same question every new season for the last 10 years. It’s amazing how repetitive reality shows such as Survivor and Big Brother have lasted much longer than other critically acclaimed series such as Arrested Development.
Even more surprising is that American Idol is not only still on the air, but actually doing well. USA Today reported that Idol’s most recent episode drew nine million more viewers than its main competitor in the time slot, The Big Bang Theory. Idol had 21.9 million viewers and ratings were up from the previous week, according to USA Today.
After Simon Cowell announced he was leaving last season, I expected the show to crash and burn miserably. For me, after singing talent, the show’s main draw was always the judges’ dynamic: Paula Abdul’s absentminded weirdness, Simon’s blunt and brutal honesty and Randy’s “cool-guy” attitude. Without that, the show should fall apart. Yet, as the ratings indicate, that’s not at all true.
Idol’s continued success can only lead me to one conclusion: It’s not about the music. Idol is as much a show about music as Survivor is a show about learning to survive on a deserted island. The music is what draws viewers in, but not what makes them stay. It’s about the drama and competition.
That might seem like an obvious statement, as it’s no secret that television depends on compelling drama. Nobody would watch the show if it was just a bunch of people standing on stage singing karaoke every week. It has to be more than that.
But Idol has always made its viewers believe the show crosses over into real life and that the contestants aren’t just characters used to draw Fox ad revenue; they’re real humans with the potential to have a lasting impact on our culture and pop music world. True reality television.
Sure, there are several Idol success stories. Jennifer Hudson is an Academy Award winning actress and respected singer. Carrie Underwood has also made herself a successful singing career. Kelly Clarkson will forever be beloved as the series’ first winner. Several other singers have gone on to starring roles on Broadway. It’s undeniable that the show has done much for our culture and the pop music world.
Far outweighing the successful Idol alumni, however, are the failed ones. Apart from the few singers already mentioned, Idol success rarely carries over to record sales or extended pop star careers.
Jive Records has recently announced that it has dropped season seven’s heartthrob David Archuletta from its roster after three years. In the wake of Archuletta’s huge Idol success, his debut album reached No. 2 on the Billboard Charts. His next album, released last year, fell victim to the sophomore slump, picking up only 60,000 sales (compared to his debut’s 750,000).
Last year’s debut album from the most recent winner Lee DeWyze was the worst-selling debut album in Idol winner history, debuting and peaking at No. 19 on the charts before dropping to No. 93 a week later. Yet the show goes on.
Hopefully, the show can produce another lasting and impactful superstar musician rather than perpetuating the illusion of fame that it often produces. If it fails to do so, the show should end its long run while it’s still somewhat ahead.
American Idol is supposed to be about music and drama, and if it loses either one it also loses its credibility.
Will Hagle is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column, “Feedback,” runs Wednesdays.