A year ago, as "American Idol" was about to embark on its fifth stint, many wondered whether it would be the season the show lost its luster.
We all know how that turned out.
Even without the headline-dominating scandals of the previous season (see " 'Idol' Probe Finds No Proof Of Paula Abdul/ Corey Clark Affair" and "Mario Vazquez Quits 'Idol' — 'It Wasn't Right For Me' "), the show's ratings rose nearly 20 percent and even slaughtered the Grammys when both aired the same night. In fact, it was estimated that half the teens watching TV on Tuesday and Wednesday nights last spring (with an average of 100 channels per home) were watching Taylor Hicks' journey to "Idol"-dom. So is it finally time to stop wondering when Ryan Seacrest and company are going away?
"I think it could be like Kellogg's," said Ron Fair, the A&R guru behind Christina Aguilera and the Pussycat Dolls, comparing "Idol" to the century-old cereal brand. "They have created something that is just so intrinsic in everybody's consciousness now, and I don't even think 'How long will it last?' is a relevant question. I think this thing goes on forever. There may be peaks and valleys, depending on who is on the show, but it's like 'Monday Night Football.' "
Not surprisingly, Randy Jackson, one of the show's primary personalities, agrees. "I think there's an abundance of talent in America, and there will never not be a lot of talent out there," he said. "You see what's happening to Jennifer Hudson, who didn't even win that year. That tells you right there there's a lot of great talent out there. It's just about finding it."
And as the show is increasingly legitimized by things like Hudson's star-making turn in "Dreamgirls" (see "Jennifer Hudson's 'Dream' Is Reality: R&B Album, Starring With Beyonce, Jamie Foxx"); the success of fourth-place finisher Chris Daughtry (see "Chris Daughtry Says 'Idol' Ejection Was 'Best Thing' For Him; Talks LP"); and Prince's appearance on last season's finale, Jackson insists the auditioning talent only gets better.
"For years, everyone has been skeptical," said Clive Davis, the legendary mogul who has overseen several former "Idol" finalists' albums for J Records and RCA. "But I am telling you, for us it has been an incredible opportunity to find new artists."
So with an endless pool of future Kelly Clarksons to choose from, is it possible "Idol" really could become an establishment as American as "Monday Night Football," which just wrapped its 37th season (see "At The Rate It's Going, Will 'Idol' Ever Face Competition?")? "I have seen nothing to indicate that 'Idol' will be slowing down anytime soon," said David Bloomberg, editor of fan site FoxesOnIdol.com. "If the public were to lose confidence in the voting, that could hurt it. But it would take a lot for that to happen. Every year there is a 'shocking' elimination and some people say it's rigged and they're never watching again. And then each year those people are right there in front of their TVs once again. It would take some huge revelation to kill the show at this point."
DJSlim, who writes a popular "Idol" blog at Idol.Slimtainment.com, agreed that the often-questioned voting system, in which Americans are allowed to vote as many times as possible, could lead to the show's demise. "Seriously, imagine for a second if William Hung had won 'American Idol' due to power voters," DJSlim said, referencing people who interfere with the voting lines. "No one would take the show seriously, and that could be a problem down the road with unlimited voting and sites like VotefortheWorst.com, which pimp the worst contestants to prove that point."
JoJo Wright, who, like Seacrest, hosts a radio show on KIIS-FM in Los Angeles, suggested another potential concern. "The only immediate scenario I see that could dethrone 'Idol' is losing Simon," he said, referring to acid-tongued but widely popular judge Simon Cowell. "All the characters have become household names, but Simon is the central figure that the show revolves around."
Andrew Wallenstein, television editor for The Hollywood Reporter, agrees. "I think people watch 'American Idol' as much for the judges as the contestants," he said. "Someone like Simon Cowell is such a character in his own right that [he could] read the phone book and people would tune in."
Cowell's contract with "Idol" lasts another four seasons, but with so many other projects in the works (from his classical boy band Il Divo to "America's Got Talent" to huge British hit "The X Factor"), there's no guarantee he'll renew again.
Lorraine Ali, a pop culture critic for Newsweek, is less focused on Simon and more on music trends in general. "I don't think it can keep going — it's going to have to evolve into something else," she said. "We go through phases where, culturally, we want to uncover stars who are like you and me. And then we go through phases where we want super-polished stars. I think it kicks back and forth. And what happens with 'American Idol,' [the contestants] come out like they're like you and me, and then three months later they get their teeth fixed and their hair's been streaked in all different ways. Maybe that will be the downfall of 'American Idol': too much primping. They start out normal and then become too celebrity too fast."
Fair, however, has overseen a number of musical movements, and he's not concerned about cultural phases.
" 'American Idol' is genius because it takes singing songs and basically turns it into sports, where it's a competition," he explained. "We all know in real life music is not a sporting event, but on the show they are able to flip the elements around so that you get the same buzz you get off watching a game as you do watching music getting performed. I am jealous that it's not my show. And as much as I am not a fan of many of the winners, I think it is an absolute genius, ubiquitous institution."