Fifteen years ago tonight, standing on the stage of the Kodak Theatre, Brian Dunkleman looked into a camera and said, “Three months from now, live on this very stage, an as-yet-unknown talent will be launched into superstardom.” That was the start of American Idol, which was not television’s first singing competition, but the one that changed everything.
That person Dunkleman referred to became Kelly Clarkson, who truly did become a superstar, as did some future contestants, including Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood.
But back then, 15 years ago, it wasn’t clear that would happen. Pop Idol was a success in the UK, but would this Fox adaptation translate to the U.S.? Would people want to call in and vote for contestants instead of just watching eliminations happen? Would anyone care?
The show wasn’t exactly starring major celebrities. Few American viewers were familiar with Simon Cowell, an acerbic talent executive from Britain who was more blunt than we were used to. Paula Abdul was the biggest name on the judging panel, but the singer and dancer was no longer an idol herself, while Randy Jackson was a Grammy winner but not a well-known one.
Cowell, though, stood out, in previews and in that first episode. The first thing he said to the camera was, “I’m here to do a job, and I’m going to do something which I think is be a shock to the American public. We are going to tell people who cannot sing, and who have no talent, that they have no talent, and that never makes you popular.”
Of course, it did make Simon—and the show—popular.
It would eventually become the number-one show on television, and its success meant it would eventually be copied repeatedly. By the end of season one, 23 million people would watch to see who became the American Idol, and by the show’s peak, more than 30 million people were watching.
The series proved to Hollywood and the world yet again that reality television could command attention and dollars, as Survivor had done two summers earlier. (Incidentally, Idol even came close to Survivor’s season-one finale record of 51 million viewers.)
American Idol demonstrated that it had broad, cross-generational appeal as it evolved past its low-rent set, handwritten contestant numbers, and shortened schedule (During season one, all the auditions happened in one episode, with the Hollywood round the next night—just two non-live episodes! Can you imagine!).
Eventually, Fox cancelled it last year, after rapidly falling ratings made its high and increasing price tag untenable.
Does American Idol have a chance of becoming as big and great as it was 15 years ago? Probably not, and no just because it’s “floundering dangerously” right now.
The expanded television universe may just be too big for a show like American Idol to stand out as it once did. But depending upon how the show evolves, it may just provide an opportunity for the next Kelly Clarkson or Justin Guarini to show up and change their lives forever. Or at least get their own movie.