'Idol's' 11th Anniversary: 11 Ways the Show Changed TV Forever
Eleven years ago this week, a little show called "American Idol" debuted as what was then called a "summer replacement series" on the Fox network. While it was coming off a blockbuster debut in Great Britain, there was so little anticipation for the new arrival that not a single American newspaper or magazine even bothered to review it.
Just over a decade later, the papers are writing "Idol's" obituary, it having become a victim of its own success. But before it sails off into the sunset (or is resurrected to be stronger than ever by its new Swedish producer), let us pause to remember the ways in which "American Idol" changed the television landscape forever.
1. Land of 1,000 networks
Before "Idol," there were three big networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) and three little ones (Fox, UPN, and the WB). And besides those, there were cable channels showing old movies and reruns. And there was backgammon and listening to the radio and reading the newspaper and ... talking to people!
Struggling Fox was at the top of that second tier, but as its last major hit had been years earlier, its survival was an open question, as was the question of whether any other network could ever challenge the total dominance of the Big Three.
"Idol" took Fox from the ratings basement and made it the king of the 18-to-34-year-old demo every spring, allowing the network to launch an entire lineup on its back. Fox not only challenged the Big Three but beat them for the first time in television history. The door was opened for other upstart networks to jump into the game, and so here we are, 11 years later, with A&E's "Duck Dynasty" and the History Channel's "Bible" miniseries routinely trouncing the struggling legacy networks.
Before "Idol" — back in the era of "Friends" — TV entertainment was heavily controlled and delivered in a perfect package to viewers. "American Idol" wasn't the first unscripted show on television or even the first unscripted hit. "Survivor" was well established by 2001, and Fox had scored minor hits with such shows as "Temptation Island." But "Idol" was the first unscripted show to utterly dominate the airwaves and reveal the full potential of the medium.
AP Photo/Rene Macura, File
Before "Idol," television was a place of kind, supportive words where everyone was special and deserving, an environment of unquestioned hype in which every show was hilarious and every star was America's best friend. It's hard to remember what an atomic bomb Simon Cowell was on the media landscape. The idea that a show would tell its performers that they were awful was unheard of. Cowell satisfied a craving for rough honesty to break through all the mealy-mouthed back slapping that dominated the culture. Eleven years later, meanness and telling people off is so much a part of our TV shows — from talent competitions to "Real Housewives" to our cultural landscape at large (Twitter often seems one giant competition to match Cowell's putdowns) — that it's hard to imagine we ever lived in a land of nice.
4. Viewer control
The word "interactive" gets thrown around a lot these days, but until "Idol," no show had ever put its course totally in the hands of its viewers. Even "Idol's" forerunners, like "Star Search," had never completely trusted their audiences with that kind of control. But "Idol" truly did let the viewers determine the program's course, for better and often for worse, starting right from the first season, when the viewers plucked a little Texas tomboy out of the ranks and let Kelly Clarkson overthrow the producers' anointed pretty face, Justin Guarini. Today, even pretaped shows such as "Survivor" and "Top Chef" feel the need to work voting elements into their programs with "viewers' choice" competitions.