American Idol begins its 15th and final season tonight on Fox. The season will be shorter than usual, and will feature the same central cast as last year: Ryan Seacrest and judges Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr., and Keith Urban. Tonight’s premiere features Kanye West auditioning and surprising the judges, though not the audience, since it’s being so heavily promoted.
While American Idol used to be capable of unscripted surprise, the show itself offers very little of that any more. (For sure, the final season will attempt some, and perhaps succeed.) If anything, though, that’s the story of the what the show has become: it has failed to refresh itself and instead withered into stagnation, even despite the changes in its judging panel.
But here are four things I learned this week about the show that genuinely surprised me:
American Idol has its origins in a 1930s radio show.Fox’s version and the UK’s Pop Idol followed in the footsteps of Star Search, yes, and before that, television such as The Gong Show. But long before that—50 years before Star Search, even—there was Major Bowes Amateur Hour.
As part of its story on the Fox show’s end, The Tennessean reports that the competition radio series introduced the world to the Hoboken Four, aka Frank Sintra and the Three Flashes. Even more astoundingly, the show had many of the same components as Idol: “Listeners voted for their favorite contestants by phone and postcard,” and “Bowes also sent his most successful competitors on tour.”
Disaster relief and other fundraising via text messaging was inspired by Idol. Texting wasn’t very popular when American Idol started using in 2003, on AT&T only, and the show is credited with helping to increase the popularity of texting.
But it was Idol plus Hurricane Katrina that inspired something revolutionary. Fast Company reported (via CNN) that during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, AT&T engineer Marian Croak had the idea of combining text voting with text donating. AT&T patented the idea (though it does not prevent others from using the technology), and Fast Company notes that “[t]ext donations didn’t make headlines until many years later, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when the relief organizations collected more than $30 million in donations by text message.”
Brian Dunkleman quit; he wasn’t fired. Shortly after the first season of Idol ended, co-host Brian Dunkleman announced he would “pursue other opportunities,” which is usually code for “fired.” That idea was bolstered by reports that Fox executives were “lukewarm” about him. And the idea that he was fired seems to have lingered, so much that I’ve even written about him not being fired yet I’m still surprised to learn that he wasn’t.
As Brian revealed in 2006, he actually quit to become an actor: “I wanted to be a performer and not someone who introduces other performers,” he told Inside Edition. He also said he had issues with “how cruel the show was.” He later went on to spoof his exit. In a new interview with CNN, he says he still fights that perception but “all anyone had to do was ask Fox to find out that wasn’t true.”
Contestant order was sometimes determined out of spite. The order of the performances on Idol was deliberate and important, of course, and the producers’ pimp-slot is well-known: they put their favorite contestants and performances first and/or especially last, which made those singers more memorable than those who sandwiched in the middle. (In 2008, David Archuleta was frequently given that last slot.) Season-six runner-up Blake Lewis wrote about one of his experiences on the show, and mentions how totally transparent that was, at least for him. During British Week, then-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe told Blake, “This is going to be one of your greatest songs, and I’m putting you last tomorrow night.”
But the surprise in the story is that Nigel initially argued with Blake about the song choice, and Blake writes, “Nigel stormed out of the room, pissed. I really had to put my foot down with him, and he was never the kind of guy to let it go. If you pissed him off, he’d put you in the middle or second-to-last in the show’s lineup, when you really wanted to be first or last.” So the production of the most-popular television show in the country was sometimes determined by whether or not teenagers and 20-somethings annoyed the show’s producer.