Back in the day when "American Idol" was the lumbering 800-pound gorilla of the reality-singing-competition world, it was hard to imagine a time when the top-rated show on TV could ever be toppled.
But like any smashingly popular series that eventually loses some of its luster (see "Lost," "Deal or No Deal" and "Two and a Half Men"), this year, "Idol" is facing a turning point of sorts. Still a ratings juggernaut, season 11 of the show will launch Wednesday night in an atmosphere ripe with other singing shows that could start nipping at its heels.
"For nine years, 'Idol' had the entire airwaves to itself with lesser rivals like 'Nashville Star' ... [but now] the world feels much more cluttered with singing shows," said veteran entertainment journalist Richard Rushfield, author of "American Idol: The Untold Story."
Among the shows Rushfield pointed to are former "Idol" judge Simon Cowell's recently concluded "X Factor," NBC's "The Voice" (which launched in late April last year but will debut after the Super Bowl on February 5) and NBC's Broadway musical drama "Smash," which stars "Idol" alum Katharine McPhee and Debra Messing (February 6).
Even with all those shows competing for eyeballs and threatening to create singing fatigue, Rushfield still feels "Idol" has a good chance of continuing its ratings dominance. "This year, after 'The Voice' and 'X Factor,' I think it's really clear what slice of the pie 'Idol' has and that they're all very different shows going after very different audiences," he said. "'Factor was making a very deliberate attempt to position itself as young and contemporary for an audience more open to an edgier, harsher show, and 'Idol' has doubled down on being the middle-American, older, feel-good, soft, nonthreatening show."
While ratings did continue their slow decline last year, "Idol" remained the overall champ, even as some critics complained about the sometimes too-sunny face put on by new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez.
As "Idol" prepares to bombard viewers with eight audition episodes featuring the predictable mix of potential stars and wackadoodle nobodies over the next month, Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston suggested perhaps it's time the show's runners take a look around and tweak the formula.
"One thing the success of 'The Voice' speaks to is that people want the action to start earlier," she said of the two-and-out round of blind auditions held by the competing show last season. "The audition episodes on 'Idol' get ratings ... but at the same time, it's grueling. 'The Voice' was so exciting because they put the competition and head-to-head stuff in so early."
Ratings history has shown that as programs like "Idol" continue on into their double-digit years, their audience invariably get older. The show has also failed to launch another superstar on the rank of winners Kelly Clarkson or season four's Carrie Underwood, with last year's winner, country teen Scotty McCreery, becoming the first platinum-selling champ since season seven's David Cook.
With "The Voice" and "X Factor" both putting a more musically and racially eclectic roster of winners and top finishers in the mix, is this the year the "four cute white guys in a row" factor might catch up with "Idol"?
Johnston doesn't think so. "One thing 'Idol' is speaking to over the past couple of years is the hunger among a certain demo for male pop singers who aren't operating in a hip-hop idiom, but in a more guitar-centric way," she said.
There was a fear that with main meanie Cowell gone, viewers might turn their backs en masse at the sunshiny vibe of Tyler and Lopez, but Rushfield said that "Idol" could end up like such perennial ratings-getters as the World Series, sticking around year-after-year through ratings booms and busts. "It could lose two-thirds of its audience and still be a strong hit show by contemporary standards," he said. "They found their most successful singer in half a decade, so you can't look at it as on the course of decline. [With Tyler and Lopez] it also has new life, but the only question is ... is there just singing-competition fatigue?"
Get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.