Bum notes: Singing shows falling flat with audiences
Let’s say you’re in a bar, and Sawyer Fredericks and Nick Fradiani walk into that bar. Would you notice, or even look up from your drink?
Probably not. And that’s why televised singing competitions are in trouble.
Fredericks won “The Voice” this week, and earlier this month, Fradiani became the latest winner of “American Idol.” You’re forgiven if their names don’t ring a bell. It’s been awhile since any “Idol” winners have registered outside of the show, and “The Voice,” somewhat infamously, has yet to mint a single star during its eight-season run (though it has done plenty for the careers of its judges, particularly Adam Levine and Blake Shelton).
The fatigue is showing. This week’s “Voice” finale was its lowest-rated to date, and “Idol’s” finale suffered a similar fate. The “Idol” finisher drew about 7.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen figures, down sharply from last year’s 10.2 million and off a whopping 80 percent from the 38.1 million viewers who tuned into to watch Ruben Studdard take on Clay Aiken in the series’ highest rated finale in 2003.
Fox has taken notice of the erosion and has pulled the plug on “Idol,” its one-time ratings Death Star. (“Idol” was consistently the most-watched program on television from 2003 to 2011.) The next season will be the show’s last, a final bow for judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr., not to mention Ryan Seacrest, who has been there since the beginning and who could die from the shock of suddenly having some free time on his hands (just kidding, he’s probably already lined up four new gigs).
It’s the end of an era, and the winding down of the televised singing competition boom that kicked off with “Idol’s” summer 2002 debut. “X Factor” has already come and gone (and left us with Fifth Harmony, which is more than “The Voice” ever gave us), and shows like “Rock Star,” “Duets” and “Rising Star” are forgotten footnotes or trivia questions for reality TV obsessives. (Fun fact: Miranda Lambert was the second runner-up on the first season of “Nashville Star.”)
The problem with the shows was there just weren’t that many undiscovered talents waiting for the bright lights to come find them. “American Idol” did its job that first season when it plucked Kelly Clarkson out of her waitress gig at a Burleson, Texas, comedy club; it could have ended right there and walked off into the sunset. Over the years several other stars emerged, including Carrie Underwood (Season 4) and Adam Lambert (Season 8), but as the talent dwindled, so did ratings and overall interest.
Other shows were left to pick at the scraps of what “Idol” left behind, and there wasn’t enough there to sustain an entire genre. The judges then became the draw, but without interesting singers in front of them, they were reduced to sideshows. Just look at the Nicki Minaj-Mariah Carey fiasco from “Idol’s” disastrous 12th season. So the craze hit its breaking point, and here we are.
The same thing happened with the game-show explosion that followed “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and the reality bonanza set off by “Survivor” (which, amazingly, is still surviving). “Idol” combined elements of both and wed it to an old-school singing format. It was a hit because it was a fresh spin on the “Star Search” template, and its audience interactivity made everyone at home feel like participants (and even experts). And it had an excellent villain in the acid-tongued Simon Cowell, whose stinging barbs made for deliciously catty viewing. Like the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” the bad guy became the star of the show.
But “Idol” was never meant to last forever, and “The Voice” likely won’t last much longer. They’ll disappear for five or 10 years and retool only to be resurrected for fresh audiences, because in reboot culture, nothing stays dead for long. The only question is if Seacrest will return to host — or if the winners will be worth looking up from your drink to notice.