How American Is “Idol”? Perhaps A Little Too Much?

Probably one of the dumbest things I have ever said in any high-level meeting was when I was invited to analyze one of the early proposals for a U.S. version of a fledgling U.K. competition series called POP IDOL.   Initially, the pitch was focused more on the revenue potential that the voting process would be able to generate.  As Wikipedia recounts, for as successful as the show was from a viewership basis, it was to some business affairs types even more compelling because of results like this:

Pop Idol made extensive use of premium-priced viewer interactivity, with viewers voting by telephone, mobile telephone texting (not used on series one), through the “red button” on digital television sets, or via the official website. The final of the first series of Pop Idol in February 2002 received the highest-ever one-night vote for a UK TV show, making the show one of ITV‘s most profitable. The sister show on ITV2, Pop Idol Extra, hosted by Kate Thornton also made extensive use of mobile phone text messages to raise additional revenue.

Sadly, I had not been invited to meetings where episodes of the actual show had been screened for creative executives.  So it was sight unseen when I reviewed the format and observed “My God, this is just like STAR SEARCH.  And that already crashed and burned, and the rerun ratings were abysmal.  We’ll never hit the kind of numbers this will require to justify the cost”.

So FX and FOX Cable passed on AMERICAN IDOL, even at a time when the rest of the industry wasn’t interested.  Because I had not yet seen Simon Cowell, and I thought every talent show was just like the other.

Fortunately for FOX, the owner’s daughter was a fan and a champion of POP IDOL, and she whispered heavily in his ear to urge his team to reconsider.  Wisely, their executives saw something in Cowell’s rigorous honesty where, unlike STAR SEARCH or earlier TV talent shows, the performers he and others would judge were as likely to be ridiculed as they were to be regaled.  It was the epitome of FOX attitude, of course.  FOX struck a low-risk deal to air the first season as a summer original, even hedging their bets by having two hosts, pairing an up-and-coming young emcee who had previously hosted a couple of low-cost family game shows with a rising young comic.   Some actually thought Brian Dunkelman was the stronger of the two at the time.

Well, I guess I wasn’t alone in being wrong.

In the ensuing decades, IDOL became more and more of a phenomenon, with its finales’ viewership nearly quadrupling over its first five seasons, and once the voting system was democratized to include lower-cost texting options, underwritten by AT&T, hundreds of millions of votes were being cast.  Arguably, the election of our next AMERICAN IDOL has often been more crucial to many than the election of the American president.

Well, these days, neither IDOL nor the election of a president are without controversy, which makes this report from yesterday’s New York Post’s and writer Jack Hobbs perhaps upsetting, but hardly surprising:

Viewers of Sunday’s “American Idol” season finale slammed the singing show on social media, claiming that the competition was “rigged” in favor of 18-year-old Iam Tongi, who became the youngest male ever to win the reality show.

The Hawaiian high school student, who lost his father shortly before his audition, beat out finalists Megan Danielle, 20, and Colin Stough, 18, for the top spot, which left several fans scratching their heads.

“‘American Idol’ is rigged. Colin Stough was the best one out there,” tweeted one angry viewer. “Big Hawaiian dude that has the best sob story is going to win. ‘American Idol’ I thought it was about talent?”

“Obviously the sympathy vote fix is in,” snapped another fan, tagging “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, 48. “The least talented guy has made it to the finals. You are not the person I thought you were.”

But a closer look at what may have motivated Stough’s supporters to be so upset was revealed in a report by THE HOLLYWOOD GOSSIP’s Kay D, Rhodes earlier this month:

In June 2021, for example, Stough shared a meme that compared an African American man wearing sagging pants with a Confederate War Memorial statue that was erected in 1906 in Covington, Georgia.

“How does a statue being in the same place for 100 years suddenly become offensive and men walking around in public with there [sic] a** showing not offensive?” Colin asked in the caption.  “Are people really this ignorant?”

And in July 2020:

The American Idol finalist posted a story titled “Donald Trump says flying the Confederate flag is ‘freedom of speech,’” and it prompted many to think he was speaking out in favor of this symbol.

And, notably, since the show’s peak viewership levels of 2007-08, the audience has become, like most broadcast television, older and less demographically balanced, its voting choices likely correlate.  Again per Wikipedia:

Throughout the series, twelve of the seventeen Idol winners, including its first five, had come from the Southern United States.[280] A large number of other finalists during the series’ run have also hailed from the American South, including Clay Aiken, Kellie Pickler, and Chris Daughtry,[280] who are all from North Carolina. In 2012, an analysis of the 131 contestants who have appeared in the finals of all seasons of the show up to that point found that 48% have some connection to the Southern United States.[281]

The show itself was popular in the Southern United States, with households in the Southeastern United States 10% more likely to watch American Idol during the eighth season in 2009, and those in the East Central region, such as Kentucky, were 16 percent more likely to tune into the series.[280] Data from Nielsen SoundScan, a music-sales tracking service, showed that of the 47 million CDs sold by Idol contestants through January 2010, 85 percent were by contestants with ties to the American South.

 For five consecutive seasons, starting in the seventh season, the title was given to a white male who plays the guitar – a trend that Idol pundits call the “White guy with guitar” or “WGWG” factor.[285] Just hours before the eleventh-season finale, where Phillip Phillips was named the winner, Richard Rushfield, author of the book American Idol: The Untold Story, said, “You have this alliance between young girls and grandmas and they see it, not necessarily as a contest to create a pop star competing on the contemporary radio, but as …. who’s the nicest guy in a popularity contest”, he says, “And that has led to this dynasty of four, and possibly now five, consecutive, affable, very nice, good-looking white boys.”[285]

The previous two seasons’ winners, Chayce Beckham and Noah Thompson, both fall into that category.  Both were elected after January 6, 2021.

I suppose these days there is no vote that goes against what some people believe to be pre-ordained won’t be deemed “RIGGED!!!”,

I admit I don’t watch IDOL as much as I used to, and I’m not alone.  Sunday night’s live three-hour finale attracted by far its lowest viewership level yet–a mere 5.71 million viewers, a -12% drop from lasy May’s finale and roughly a quarter of what that first summer season 21 years ago achieved.  But I did watch the performances of the three finalists online after the live show .  To me, each of them were quite good.  Tongi reminds me quite a bit, both in talent and girth, of second season winner Ruben Studdard.  Studdard’s win was one of the narrowest in the show’s history (134,000 votes out of nearly 24 million cost) and came in the show’s most viewed episode to date.  It was controversial then due to technology–the show’s phone lines were overloaded.  Technology has improved dramatically since, and the viewership is now far lower.  So it’s sure not the ability to vote at all that’s the problem.

But just as Studdard’s win evoked protest when he beat a WGWG named Clay Aiken, Tongi’s win is drawing similar consternation.  Thanks to social media and dot-connecting, we just have a bit more insight these days as to the likelihood of why that is.

Even at these diminished levels, IDOL is still one of the Top 20 series on broadcast television, and a 22nd season has been announced.  That finale will likely be airing while we will be in the heat of another election, and we all know how emotionally charged that portends to be.   I can’t help but fear that will make the election of your next AMERICAN IDOL even less consequential.

Then again, I was dead wrong about this show’s potential at the outset.  I sure hope I can be just as wrong again.

Until next time…

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