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Why 'American Idol' was so important

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Why 'American Idol' was so important

Opinions expressed in thispiece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of SNLKagan.

Iwatched the end of an American television pop culture era last night along withabout 10 million of my closest friends.

“AmericanIdol's" “farewell” show ended a 15-season run that reportedly grossed $6.5billion for 21st Century FoxInc.’s FOX.  

Italso created a slew of top-tier and marginal celebrity millionaires fromrelative unknowns and offered a few fading music industry stars a new spotlightand a second surge of glory as “Idol” judges (Yes, I’m talking about you PaulaAbdul, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler).

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Contestantsdid not even have to win the “Idol” crown to find fame and fortune, which Ithink was part of “Idol’s” compelling magic for contestants and viewers.Perhaps that will also prove true for last night’s finalists — surprise winnerTrent Harmon and odds-on-favorite turned runner up LaPorsha Renae.

Evensubpar performances found perch on “American Idol.” Just ask rejectedcontestant William Hung whose charmingly awful renditionof Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” in 2004 empowered him to release two albums withsales of 257,000.

Hungreprised his performance last night, and I can tell you his act did not improveone iota. But I still yelled bravo — it was so atrociously enjoyable. That iswhy, I reason, “Idol” was about the best appointment TV show in the crowdedtalent competition genre — “The Voice,” “The X-Factor,” “America’s Top Model,”“So You Think You Can Dance,” and so on. “Idol” is the flagship.

“AmericanIdol” drew75,000 wannabees “swarming to auditions in five cities this season,” accordingto FOX News. Not bad for a summer replacement that beckoned only 65 contestantsfor the first auditionsin Miami in 2002, according to TheHollywood Reporter.

Butwith ratings slipping the past few years from “Idol’s” peakof 37.44 million viewers in 2007, and ad sales shrinking to a fraction of the$1.3 million an average 30-second spot reportedly commanded in 2006, FOXannounced in May 2015 that 2016 would close the series’ historic run. In fact,last year, 21st Century Fox executives even used weakening “Idol” stats to lowerguidance on an earnings call.

Still,in media folklore, “American Idol” is impressive and important in myriad ways,including:

*Itchanged the music business by usurping power from big market radio stations andthe A&R (artist & repertoire) lords of record companies by discoveringtalent and building their careers. The show offered its top contestants acontract with its own management company, 19Entertainment, founded by “Idol” creator Simon Fuller.

*”Idol”became a force in music sales. In 2007, “Idol” related content accounted for2.1% of all album sales, according to industry tracker SoundScan, owned byNielsen Holdings.Since 2002, the 15 “American Idol” finalists have generated sales of nearly 77million albums and digital equivalents (as detailed in the table at the bottomof this post).   

*Competingnetworks had to program around “Idol” for 15 seasons because “Idol” earned itsreputation as “theDeath Star.” “American Idol” was ranked the number one show in broadcast TVfor eight consecutive seasons and still holds the record for the longestconsecutive winner of TV ratings by Nielsen.

*Itcreated a new rich era for songwriters by hiring teams of lyricists andcomposers to create songs for “Idol” contestant albums developed by 19Entertainment. True, the entertainment company has been criticized by musicindustry pundits for overly controlling the career and economics of its “Idol”clients, but that’s another story for another blog.

*Itlaunched a successful touring business “American Idol Live” in 2002 in which“Idol” contestants have grossed at least $217 million, according to the leadingindustry trade publisher Pollstar (as reportedby The New York Times).

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*Itmotivated millions of American adults to learn how to text so they could votefor their favorite contestants. That proved to be a blessing and curse for theshow’s reign as social media soared. “Idol” could not handle the chatter effectivelywith Twitter Inc. andFacebook Inc. forprime voting. Some contestants already had their own social-media followingscomplete with hashtags and YouTube views. But “Idol” did create a “fansave” on Twitter in 2015 to give viewers the power to rescue a fan favoritefrom extinction for an additional week. The experiment had mixed results.

*Itcelebrated bad behavior long before Donald Trump branded it. No others on TV —except maybe wrestlers — were so compelling to watch as “Idol’s” most famous toughlove judge, Simon Cowell. More recently, there were the dueling divas NickiMinaj and Mariah Carey.

Asmuch as I think it will be difficult to replicate the impact of “American Idol”on media, entertainment and music, I am confident that some other force willemerge. I don’t know what or when right now, but something new and excitingwill show up — it always does.

Lastnight was as close to an Irish wake as TV can get — part funeral, partfestival. But fret not “Idol” bereaved. The show’s producers purposely avoidedthe word “final” for the season closer— instead using the “farewell” show.  That’s television code and means, I suspect,that a reunion show has already been optioned.