CarterMatt Extended: The life and death of ‘American Idol,’ ‘The Voice,’ and singing on TV

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Mere hours before the time of this publication, “America’s Got Talent” crowned its season ten winner, and for the fourth consecutive year, it was not a singer. This continues a trend where for the first six years of the NBC show’s existence, an act with some sort of singing ability ended up winning. The only remote outlier was in season 2, when ventriloquist Terry Fator took home the title instead; yet he still used his puppets to sing, and ironically he was actually better at it than some winners since.

There is no clear-cut example of America’s apathy towards singers than these statistics. What happened to cause this change stems from something so much deeper than just an NBC reality show suddenly not having halfway decent singers anymore. It comes with the change of an era, and a climate that has cooled from white-hot to frigid. The life and death of singing as America’s TV obsession is a fascinating topic, largely because it proves that you can have too much of a good thing, and when it comes to the taste of the fickle viewer, timing is just as important as trust.

The rebirth of a pastime

Singing shows were around long before reality television as we know it today. The variety show was one of the original formats, and “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” were the places singers wanted to go to get discovered for decades. At the time there was less competition, and getting on either show was a guarantee that millions would see and hear you; getting that face-time has been shown to be equally as important as having a killer melody. Just look at how television changed the careers of the Beatles and Elvis Presley.

We like to think of September 3, 2002 as the real birth of the singing competition as we know it. “American Idol” was starting its two-part finale, and it was doing so after the show grew all summer to be an American sensation. There was natural curiosity surrounding a cranky British judge by the name of Simon Cowell, and it was considered insane that a star of Paula Abdul’s capacity would want to attach herself to such an unknown personality. (Ironically, Brian Dunkleman became an unknown after leaving the show at the end of the season.)

The wonder of the show came through the power of choice, that America had the opportunity to vote between Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini as the next big star. These were two contestants who were largely undiscovered before the show, and this was their chance to be recognized. Those final episodes averaged over 20 million viewers and a huge 10.0 rating in the 18-49 demographic. The only shows now that routinely get around this are key sporting events.

For years, “American Idol” (based on the British “Pop Idol” format) was the show everyone wanted to be a part of, and it was an institution where once a year, you could have your voice heard on who you wanted to be the next big star. When Clarkson became a huge success, it empowered the voters. Their choices mattered, and they could own a small piece of what she was doing with “A Moment Like This” or “Miss Independent.” There is a selfish part in everyone who wants to feel like they were a part of something big; that’s why today, you see super-fans of any given superstar fighting on social media, doling out such comments as “we were here first!” to justify why they are bigger supporters than someone who just so happened to stumble upon them on the radio.

The cultural movement of the show was never bigger than in the season 2 finale, which generated more than 38 million viewers and almost a 17.0 rating in the demo. For any network, the question is how to get young people to watch; there was no begging or pleading or pandering that needed to be done. Thanks in part to Clarkson’s success, it didn’t even matter too much in the years that followed if the winner was a chart-topper. They were a big enough star to still validate the show, and that was enough. Kelly was the proof-of-concept

Right when you could start to question if the “Idol” machine had started to lose its power, Carrie Underwood came along and pushed the show full steam  ahead once again. It was clear by season 5 that she would be a big star, and this helped to move the show forward with validation and hope for many more years. Other imitations came, but they all failed. The season 5 finale, won by Taylor Hicks, drew over 36 million viewers and was the most-watched episode in three seasons. Consider that another peak.

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Tracking what went wrong

No music show matters in this genre more than “American Idol,” so rather than spending an extensive amount of time at this point bringing “America’s Got Talent” or “The Voice” just yet, it is instead better to consider when we came to our turning point. Flash-forward in your time machine to May 2009. Season 8 was coming to a close, and we had one of the greatest showdowns of all time between Adam Lambert and Kris Allen. Ultimately, we don’t believe that it mattered so much which one of them won when it came to their stardom after the show (we’d seen enough evidence at that point from Clay Aiken and Katharine McPhee that winning wasn’t everything); what mattered is that this was the last time that “Idol” would ever feel like “Idol.”

In August of that year, Abdul announced that she was leaving the show after eight seasons, and with her went a part of the institution. In television, familiarity is the name of the game. If you want variety, you visit your local movie theater. Television is what you go to after a long day, and you want to see Simon Cowell act totally confused by 90% of what Paula says. From there, a series of ill-advised decisions began. The show brought on Ellen DeGeneres in what was a move that both parties should have realized was problematic from the start, given that you had a comedian on a show meant to judge singers. The chemistry was off, and from there you also had a crop of contestants that, with a few exceptions (namely the top three), started to feel like the limitless great American talent pool was drying up.

“American Idol” staged a quick creative comeback in season 10 with Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler coming in, but the show could never be the same. It went from being the annual event to yet another TV show. Also, where were the true superstars? Other than Lambert and Jordin Sparks, few singers from the show were churning out hit singles. Radio stations started no longer caring, and a certain innovation known as YouTube was really starting to rise to prominence. It had been around since 2005, but come this time singers were starting to realize that posting covers on here and garnering attention was a way to be discovered without the long lines, the judges, and the corporate sponsorships.


Collision course

We were not willing to refer to the singing-show genre as a rotting corpse in the summer of 2009 when Paula left “Idol,” but it was clear that it was starting to cannibalize itself. Cowell was executive-producing another show in the aforementioned “America’s Got Talent,” where any singer could audition without age restrictions. There was another permanent venue to watch singing on TV; it took some time for it to start to saturate the market, but it did. There was no longer anything that made “Idol” the special part of Fox’s primetime schedule that it was.

Then, “The Voice” season 1 premiered in the spring of 2011, right in the middle of “American Idol” season 11. The genre was already starting to decline, but having yet another singing show was starting to allow it to enter full-on zombie mode, the sort that Robert Kirkman would want to write about. By this point, the idea of there being another Kelly or Carrie was long gone, as was the notion of being “part of something.” This is why “The Voice” managed within a few seasons to completely steal what little thunder was left; it didn’t care about finding a star. Sure, they may claim that they want to, but when was the last time you saw a contestant in a commercial for this show longer than a few seconds? It made its series all about its “superstar coaches,” and the people that the show turned into stars were Adam Levine and Blake Shelton rather than anyone who tried out.

“The Voice” solved the problem of how to make a singing show entertaining for an audience feeling burned out, but it failed dramatically in the department of how to make a star. The reverse goes for “The X Factor,” Cowell’s much-ballyhooed attempt to turn his British sensation into something in America that generated 20 million viewers. He did get Fifth Harmony out of it and he deserves some credit for that, but ratings-wise through its three seasons it has to be considered one of the biggest disappointments (not to mention creative snoozefests) in reality TV history.

The cause of death

We have to consider that someone was going to leave “American Idol” eventually, so we cannot blame Paula’s exit entirely and the end of the familiarity. Meanwhile, we had to know there would be competitors, even something like YouTube was hard to predict in 2008 or 2009.

The true nail in the coffin for singing shows is that no matter how you look at the “innovations” or the “evolution,” they all offered the same thing: Watching contestants perform in front of famous people who appear moderately interested in what they are doing. Then, they are judged on it, and America ultimately decides the winner. One show has auditions without a live audience; another has spinning chairs. None of the frills matter when the bones are broken. They needed to find a way to tap into the internet faster, to allow their contestants to be fun, living, breathing people rather than sappy archetypes. They needed quirkier song themes other than the Whitney Houston catalog, and ways to get the public even more involved. You cannot replace familiarity with false familiarity; that is what “Idol” has tried to do ever since season 8, and what it and other shows have done is borrow the mannequin and stuck on a new outfit on it.

You have to replace familiarity with evolution. TV and viewer interest changes, and it certainly will here.

The resuscitation

Thankfully, TV executives are a little like Victor Frankenstein, and can create a new monster at almost any time. “American Idol” is in its final season. “The Voice” may have a few years left. “America’s Got Talent” is done rewarding singers. There will be a few years when there is no show featuring people trying to get a record deal, which will inevitably be taken from them after a year or two.

Then, a glorious phoenix will rise with a song in its heart and a dollar-signs in its eyes. This will be the start of a new revolution, and something that could change the game once again. Maybe it will be a contest where singers audition via Periscope or something similar, but our guess is that it will be done in almost real-time, and will show you life beyond just the stage and enable so much more interaction. “Celebrity judges” will change; maybe they will no longer exist since their redundancies will be known to the world.

As a lover of television, it is easy to await that day. Until then, all there is left to do is try to enjoy the decay of this once-great genre, and try to stop the yawn that comes between occasional laughter and the less occasional surprise.

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CarterMatt Extended is a new feature, comprising of in-depth articles on various TV topics posted every Wednesday night.

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