Given the still-respectable 11-million viewers who have been tuning in every week to watch "American Idol" this season, the biggest question surrounding Thursday’s series finale is whether the show is really going away. At least for very long.
Of course, not long ago, many of us were asking why "American Idol" was still on the air, considering its steep audience decline in the years after original judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson departed.
At its peak, "American Idol" was averaging an estimated 30.7 million viewers per telecast, according to Nielsen. That was season five (2005-06), which still featured the original trio. By season 14 (2014-15), only an estimated 10.9 million viewers were bothering with Jennifer Lopez; Keith Urban; and Harry Connick, Jr. That is a staggering loss of 19.8 million viewers. In all, only about one-third of that peak audience was tuning in last season.
Declining ratings, of course, resulted in smaller ad revenue, with mainstay sponsors like AT&T and Coca-Cola eventually jumping ship. Meanwhile, the rising costs of constantly escalating production values and retaining legacy talent (you think Ryan Seacrest and J. Lo come cheap?) were surely hurting the bottom line.
Viewed through that lens, there should be no question that "Idol" needs to end. But, playing devil’s advocate for a moment …
No primetime series maintains peak audience levels for 15 straight years. The ratings for veteran shows like "60 Minutes" and "Survivor" on CBS, "Dancing With the Stars" on ABC, "Law & Order: SVU" on NBC, and Fox’s "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" now pale in comparison to what they once were. But they still continue to draw good crowds.
Any show that reaches the 30-million viewer mark (and "Idol" did that in both seasons five and six) has only one place to go: down.
Ratings this season have stabilized after four consecutive years of erosion. "American Idol" still performs better than anything Fox has scheduled in Q4 prior to its return. And the show still remains profitable through other product placements within the show and partnerships with outlets like iTunes.
And let’s be honest: Fox is unlikely to find anything of equal value to fill those three weekly hours of primetime real estate come Q1 2017. Plus, it already has countless other weak spots to address on its line-up. So, why make matters worse by dropping a show that is still generating interest … and revenue?
"It’s always best to leave the stage before they ask you to go," said Bill Carroll, SVP and director of content strategy for the Katz Television Group. "Probably the folks at Fox realized that the potential growth of the program was in its past, so now you are looking at either stabilizing or potential declines. That’s the point in which you should probably move on."
True, the show’s recent ratings surge is almost certainly driven by interest in the farewell season. And "Idol" has gone to great lengths to acknowledge the rich history of the show with popular special guests. But even if it’s just the nostalgia talking, public interest in a revival seems to be cresting just as the show is retreating.
"’American Idol’ is not going to come back next year," noted Carroll. But "it certainly has unique brand identification, and in this fragmented marketplace, that is something that, at some point in the future, you can take advantage of. If Fox was able to maintain the current group of judges — and obviously Ryan Seacrest is part of the package—then it could have potentially stayed on. But taking a break could also infuse added interest."
Charles Boyd, the show’s co-executive producer, reminded me that "Idol" came on air shortly after 9/11, when the country needed something pure and aspirational to root for. "We gave them contestants they could identify with," he said. "There was a great sense of camaraderie on the screen and around the screen, and I do believe that was infectious. I don’t think that element will ever end."
"Once that friendly blue sign goes out on Thursday night, I don’t think that people are really going to accept that this is going away, because it embodies so much about the country and the people in it," he added.
Neither will Fox, perhaps, for very long.