Will TV ever have an ‘American Idol’-size hit again?
Country music legend Luke Bryan reveals how much he's enjoying being a part of 'American Idol' and how the show really helps to find the stars of the future. (Oct. 19) AP
Take a moment, if you can, and travel back in time to the summer of 2002. There were no streaming services. DVRs hadn't really caught on yet. And YouTube wouldn't hit the Internet for three more years.
It was in this environment that a scrappy singing competition series premiered, with a mean British judge and a young starlet-in-the-making named Kelly. American Idol would become a massive hit that drew 38 million viewers at its peak in 2003, according to Nielsen data.
Now, just two years after Fox pulled the plug, ABC is reviving it (Sundays and Mondays, 8 ET/PT), hoping it will help the struggling network drum up more viewers. No one expects the new Idol, still hosted by Ryan Seacrest but with Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan at the judges' table, to reach the audience it had when Taylor Hicks somehow ran away with America's hearts.
But its return begs the question: Are we ever going to get back to those kinds of broad, zeitgeist-defining TV hits again? Will we ever get another game show like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which peaked at 36 million viewers? Will Survivor ever reach its 52-million-viewer peak again? Can new medical dramas get to 48 million viewers like ER did?
Simply put, "it's an emphatic no," according to Brad Adgate, a media consultant.
"(Idol) was really the last regularly scheduled show that had mass appeal," he says. "Now, averaging 30 million viewers a night is never going to happen again." Even awards shows and sports are less reliable in delivering huge audiences. The Oscars this month dropped to a record low of 26.5 million viewers, down 20% from last year's 33 million. Even once-invincible NFL ratings continued their decline last season.
Technology and competition from cable and streaming has changed the TV landscape too much to make many broad hits anymore, says Rick Porter, editor of TVBytheNumbers.com.
"It's unlikely we'll ever see the kind of raw numbers Idol had in its heyday ever again," he says, citing both changing technology and increased choice. Back then, "there were fewer than half the number of scripted shows as there are now."
Even in this climate, reviving Idol actually makes sense for ABC, says Preston Beckman, a former network executive who worked at Fox during Idol's heyday.
"The ratings for Idol weren’t that different than the (current) ratings for Amazing Race, or The Bachelor or Dancing With the Stars," he notes. "They’re all in that range, they all serve the purpose of filling up hours on your schedule that, if you don’t have them, you have to go out there and develop (new shows) and increase your chances of failure."
TV viewing has become more fragmented, and Porter notes that while the raw ratings are still low for many series, we still have hits.
"At its peak, Idol had ratings about three times that of the average prime time show" among young adults. "The most recent season of Game of Thrones had ratings about four times the average, and shows like This Is Us and The Big Bang Theory have more than twice the average," he says. The Big Bang Theory and NCIS still average 14 or 15 million viewers per week. And if you're looking for a watercooler show, Crock-Pot chatter about This Is Us and fan theories for Game of Thrones are hard to avoid.
And though streaming services won't say how many people watch their shows, "the little bit of data Nielsen has released on streaming shows suggests Stranger Things, at least, draws a network-sized audience," adds Porter.
The explosion in content coincides with more divisive rhetoric in our politics and culture, potentially splintering audiences further.
"It’s so easy to find your own cult, whatever you’re looking for," says Ron Simon, curator for the Paley Center for Media. "Almost anything that you’re looking for, there will be something out there in the digital universe."
"We’ve always watched TV shows because of our backgrounds or points of view," says Beckman. The difference now, he says, is that there are more options. "In the '60s, '70s, or '80s ... you had a limited number of options of what to watch, and broadcasters would try to do programs that appeal to as many people as possible. Now, we live in a world where you can do a show like Transparent. It probably gets more attention than viewers, but there’s an audience for that."
Maybe we'll never get a true mass-appeal, gigantic hit again. But Adgate says viewers still win because they have so many options, tailored to their interests. But Porter says there's a downside: "Having thousands of choices for what you want to watch can be great, but it can also be kind of overwhelming."