Is American Idol In Trouble?

American Idol got a predictable ratings boost when a special audition episode aired Sunday night following the NFC championship, but the numbers for the regular Wednesday and Thursday editions have slipped this year. Fox is used to seeing ratings drops of varying sizes for Idol, but the plunges seem particularly severe this time. The Thursday edition drew the smallest ratings for Idol since its first season, and the show was once again beaten head-to-head by The Big Bang Theory (Idol pulled even with the CBS sitcom in the 18-49 demographic when its ratings for the entire hour were averaged out).

So what’s the matter with Idol? Is this a problem that is fixable? Or should Fox just grin and bear it (remember, we’re still talking here about a show that is at worst just below the very top of the ratings)? There are some clear reasons why Idol is in relative decline, some that can’t really be helped but others than perhaps can.

Age. Simply put, Idol is in its eleventh season. Very few series make it to that length, and it’s rarer to find any that still have significant ratings momentum after a decade. Related to the age issue is that it’s nearly impossible to be surprised by anything on Idol at this point. Even the best contestants and the most heartbreaking personal stories can’t help but remind viewers of those who have come before. Fans of The Simpsons know the feeling.

The glut of music competition shows. Simon Cowell’s new show, The X Factor, is a success (albeit on a much lower level than his old show), and helped Fox win fall nights it had never been competitive on before. Also successful is NBC’s X Factor knockoff, The Voice. But between these two shows, Idol, and the music-dominated America’s Got Talent in the summer, there is scarcely a television week any longer without some unsigned singer trying to impress a panel of judges. The long gap between May and January used to mean that people would look forward to a new Idol season like the coming of Christmas morning, but the competition makes that level of anticipation impossible today.

Other networks aren’t afraid anymore. The mere fact that CBS dared to move its most prominent younger show to Thursdays at the same time Idol adopted a Wednesday-Thursday schedule is proof that the fear factor is gone. Part of the success of Idol over the years had come from the refusal of other networks to challenge it.

There’s no drama behind the scenes to attract viewers. This is the first time since Seasons 6 and 7 that Idol has had consecutive seasons with the same lineup of judges. There was particular curiosity going into last season, the first without Cowell. This season, there’s no need to see whether and how things have changed with a new panel.

Idol isn’t keeping up with broader trends in music. The original Idol formula was simple enough: stand there and belt. The show has expanded its palette somewhat to include singer-songwriter types and those who play musical instruments, but that’s something more likely to appeal to those on the older side of the 18-49 spectrum, not to mention Boomers who are beyond even that. Idol has not yet found a way to channel the dominant sound of today’s pop charts, with its guest rappers, use of Autotune, and its emphasis on producers, dance, and electronics (all less important in country, which is why Scotty McCreery has managed to get a foothold); and that is a key reason why it is having increasing problems with younger viewers.

Too many recent winners have not become stars. Related to the above. It’s gotten harder for viewers to buy that there’s anything major at stake in an Idol title, given recent dead-on-arrival “champions” like Lee Dewyze.

The nicey-nice judging panel makes for a more boring show. Some liked Simon Cowell and some hated him, but people definitely paid attention. When he issued a compliment, it had weight because they were so rarely doled out. But the problem with the lack of Simon goes beyond no one wanting to be mean – it’s more than there’s no nuance at all. Mediocre singers and the very best are treated equally. The current panel agrees on almost everything – either three yes votes or three no votes. Serious differences of opinion, or even the sense that someone is being advanced with great misgivings, are almost unheard of now. As The Voice has discovered, a panel where the judges have both credibility and differing sensibilities can be entertainment in itself.