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Why are there 16 missing American Idol seasons?

Why are there 16 missing American Idol seasons?
Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, and Ryan Seacrest celebrate American Idol's 20th season in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 5, 2021. (Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC)

Last year was a very, very long year in so many ways. It started with an insurrection, with followers of the former Apprentice star chanting about hanging the vice president while violently storming the Capitol while he was “gleefully watching on his TV.”

It ended with the last Golden Girl, Betty White, leaving the earth weeks before her 100th birthday.

In between were hundreds of reality show premieres. And during that time, I apparently missed 16 seasons of American Idol.

Yes, it seems that 16 seasons of American Idol aired between last spring and now. I mean, just look at the evidence:

  • In late 2020, ABC announced the premiere date for “season 4,” with the official American Idol account tweeting that the show “is coming back for Season 4 on ABC” in 2021, and later tweeted that they were “excited for season 4.”
  • This week, the American Idol account tweeted that “we head into our iconic 20th season,” and has been tweeting about season 20 for months now, using language like this: “Waiting in the wings for Season 20… coming in early 2022 on ABC!”

To recap, this is what’s happened with the singing competition during its life on ABC:

  • 2018, season 1
  • 2019, season 2
  • 2020, season 3
  • 2021, season 4
  • 2022, season 20

So yes, we’ve gone from season 4 to season 20 in one year. ABC also released the photo above, in which Lionel Richie and Ryan Seacrest seem like their heads are oddly squished to me, and that may indicate that the show is in some kind of time vortex, churning out more than a dozen seasons in a single year while we only saw one.

In all seriousness, the real reason for this, of course, is that American Idol is reaching its 20th anniversary season, and its fifth season on ABC, in 2022. But this wonky numbering is indicative of a larger problem.

Why I’m annoyed that American Idol season 5 and 20 are the same thing

Ryan Seacrest, Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie celebrated the show's 5th ABC season and 20th season overall in Los Angeles on Oct. 17, 2021
Ryan Seacrest, Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie celebrated the show’s 5th ABC season and 20th season overall in Los Angeles on Oct. 17, 2021. (Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC)

I noticed that, in the past, ABC sometimes qualified that their numbering was just for ABC, like with this: “season 4 on ABC.” Except in December, it tweeted about “the historic 20th year of #AmericanIdol on ABC.” Same phrasing.

In some places, ABC does make this crystal clear, such as with their Aug. 2021 announcement which said “Season Five on ABC and Historic 20th Season Overall” in the headline, and then elaborated even more, saying the judges would “help discover America’s next singing sensation for a fifth season on ABC, while celebrating the franchise’s historic 20th season overall.”

That’s all verbiage that makes sense to me, but it’s not what the show is using on social media. Tweets from this year and even last fall just call it “season 20.”

I really hated that, in 2018, ABC started numbering its American Idol seasons from one, as if the previous Fox seasons just didn’t happen.

I think that choice hit the raw nerve in my body that was dug out when MTV started naming The Real World seasons the exact same name as previous seasons, like calling season 22 The Real World: New Orleans even though that was season nine, or calling season 25 The Real World: Las Vegas as if the 2002 season with Trishelle never happened! Blasphemy!

Yes, I have early-season-erasure outrage.

This does introduce a real problem. Giving the same numbers or titles to different seasons is just freaking confusing for those of us who are, like, trying to find TV shows to watch.

If you want to stream American Idol someday, will you search for season 5 or 20, or both? Will season 5 also show you the season that Taylor Hicks won? (That reminds me: of all the seasons they should try to erase, it’s season five. Oh, I kid Taylor Hicks.)

ABC and MTV are not alone in this.

IMDb has a long list of more than 100 identically-named movies and TV shows, which happens sometimes because there’s a remake, and sometimes just because titles aren’t copyrightable.

In reality TV, just look what a mess PBS and then Netflix made of The Great British Bake Off seasons.

The original season 5 (or series five, as the British call it) is labeled as PBS season 1, while PBS season 5 is actually season 3, and Netflix season 5 is actually season 8. <head explosion emoji>

Why can we just not stick with the original numbering? Did PBS really think American audiences wouldn’t understand if they showed us season five first? (Okay, yes, maybe some people; after all, a lot of people thought an ABC reality show was murdering its contestants.)

I don’t know what to do about this now. If, in honor of American Idol’s 20th season, ABC retroactively renamed its four seasons so far their correct numbers, and then just continued with 21 next year, there’d still be four years of other season numbers floating around the Internet.

There are easy fixes, too. Before MTV just gave up and started reusing titles, it gave us The Real World: Back to New York.

Most recently, Survivor decided to just switch to numbers from now on to keep its titles simpler. Although there was a lot of “drop the four” talk during the season, the 2021 season was named Survivor 41, even though none of the previous seasons had numbers. The actual show might not trust its audience, but at least they trusted us enough to understand why Survivor 41 had that name.

In the future, I hope TV networks and creators will think about the people who watch their shows when they decide on titles and numbers for their seasons, especially for long-running shows.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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Happy discussing!

Michael Harmstone

Monday 10th of January 2022

Ten in Australia did the same thing when they took over broadcasting (their awful version of) The Amazing Race Australia. They tried to retcon the numbering and start it from 1 again.


Sunday 9th of January 2022

For whatever reason, past AI seasons are not and have never been rewatchable *anywhere*. Fox Reality used to air a retrospective show called (I think) American Idol Rewind, but the show itself has never reaired or streamed afaik. What's up with that?