LOS ANGELES – Even the catchiest pop songs eventually make you want to dive for the earplugs.
And so it goes with “American Idol,” which is being taken out of rotation Thursday the way we shoo away a beloved house guest who has overstayed his welcome.
The lack of sentimentality is understandable — lovesick bachelorettes and bickering presidential candidates currently command reality TV’s center stage.
When “Idol” debuted in 2002 amid a sea of summer repeats, expectations were low (think karaoke night at the Loose Moose Saloon). But in less than two years, “Idol” had morphed into a juggernaut, building a deep roster of bestselling recording artists, dominating the TV ratings for a decade and forcing us to confront the social implications of sporting “Pants on the Ground.”
“I think we knew a fraction into the first season that it was resonating,” said host Ryan Seacrest, who would use his leverage to produce “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and purchase the original portrait of Dorian Gray. “And then when we would walk through airports for auditions or went to dinner, you would see fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, watching the show. That’s when we realized we were having this significant impact, not just on an audience, but a family audience.”
Even in its final seasons, the show could generate buzz around the water cooler or its Hollywood stand-in, the Godiva chocolate fountain.
Judge Jennifer Lopez remembers making heads turn at Vanity Fair’s 2012 Oscars party. For once, it had nothing to do with her dress.
“Steven Spielberg and George Clooney were there, and I was the biggest star in the room,” she said. “Every A-lister wanted to know about ‘Idol.’ ‘Who do you think is going to win?’ ‘What’s going to happen?’ ‘Omigod, I love so and so.’ That’s when I really noticed the impact that it had.”
If the series provided established stars an ego boost and an occasional bump in sales — 2011’s “On the Floor,” released shortly after Lopez joined the panel, became one of her biggest hits — it earned popular contestants something even more valuable: a career.
“I would say ‘Idol’ is probably the closest thing you’re ever going to find to a fame boot camp,” said David Cook, who had 11 songs debut in the Billboard 100 a week after his Season 7 victory. “The lessons I took away are lessons that I still use today.”
Cook’s accomplishments, while impressive, are dwarfed by the ongoing success of two predecessors: Kelly Clarkson, who has sold more than 25 million albums, and Carrie Underwood, who has amassed seven Grammys and 11 Country Music Awards.
With the two powerhouses leading the way, “Idol” alums have reached the top of various Billboard charts more than 350 times while also providing all-access passes to the VIP lounge.
“It used to weird me out at the very beginning,” said 2003 winner Ruben Studdard, who will perform during Thursday’s finale with more than 40 past competitors. “You’ve got Stevie Wonder whispering in your ear, ‘Hey, I love you’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, OK.’ ”
Jordin Sparks remembers being tongue-tied upon meeting Fergie backstage at the 2008 Teen Choice Awards, a year after her “Idol” coronation. Turns out, she didn’t have to say much.
“She grabbed me instead of me approaching her,” Sparks said. “So that happened, and now this is where I am. It’s still really humbling, to be able to call these people my peers.”
Simon says ‘bye’
It wasn’t that long ago that big names such as Wonder and Fergie wouldn’t even consider associating themselves with the Fox network, aside from lending their voices to “The Simpsons.”
“Idol” changed all that, dominating not one but two nights of prime-time TV. From 2003 to 2011, “Idol” was the No. 1 program in ratings. Only “All in the Family” and “The Cosby Show” come close to matching that streak. Other networks must have seriously considered turning over their opposing time slots to dead air, something ABC practically did at one point by offering up a one-hour block of “According to Jim” as a sacrificial lamb.
Kevin Reilly, NBC entertainment president in the mid-2000s, famously nicknamed his greatest nemesis “the Death Star” after his network’s coverage of the Winter Olympics had to settle for the silver medal in head-to-head competition.
“You’ve got to rope-a-dope a little bit,” Reilly told the TV Critics Association in 2007 after announcing that he’d be programming “Dateline” and “Deal or No Deal” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “We’re not even kidding ourselves about that anymore. We’ve just left too many shows in its wake.”
But like a dynasty sports team, “Idol” couldn’t reign forever.
The first serious blow was the departure of Simon Cowell — J.R. Ewing without the 10-gallon hat — who thought he could get more money and more hoopla with “The X Factor” (wrong, on both accounts). Then there were the blink-and-you missed-’em stints from Ellen DeGeneres and Mariah Carey.
Hey, if they didn’t want stick around, why should we?
The final blow: NBC’s “The Voice,” which has briskly eclipsed its older sibling, despite having yet to launch the career of a major recording artist.
A second act?
Lately, “Idol” hasn’t played much of a role in that department, either. Scott McCreery was the last winner to make a serious stab at stardom, and that was five years ago.
“Idol” drew 10 million to 12 million viewers per episode last season — an impressive number by most standards — but when you were once drawing three times that many viewers, you’re inevitably branded as a has-been.
Reilly left NBC in 2007 and was quickly scooped up by Fox to run its programming, which, of course, revolved around that Death Star.
It was good to be a member of the Dark Side. Until it wasn’t.
“Oh, God. You’re causing me pain,” said Reilly, now overseeing reconstruction at TBS and TNT, when asked to reflect on “Idol’s” fall from grace. “The show was extraordinary, one of a kind, but it’s time for it to be over. I think everyone agrees.
“Ratings were going down for ‘X Factor’ and ‘Idol,’ and there was almost nothing you could do. I loved my Fox experience, but the last couple years were not a lot of fun.”
And so TV says a final farewell to one of its most impactful shows. Or does it?
Fox is not above reviving old favorites, including “The X-Files.” Production on new episodes of “Prison Break” begins in April. It’s not hard to imagine that at the first time of trouble — gee, a weeknight variety hour hosted by Caitlyn Jenner seemed like a good idea on paper — the network might corral the old gang for a “very special” reunion.
Seacrest will bring the potato salad.
“When you’ve got a franchise that has this kind of heritage and that generates X amount of millions, does that mean it’s the end?” he said. “I’m not so sure.”