PHILADELPHIA — TV shows live by the numbers and they die by the numbers.
At the moment, “American Idol” is being gashed with the Nielsen sabre.
Viewership for the Fox singing contest is down just over 20 percent vs. last year at this time, and ratings in the adult demographic (18-49 years old) have dropped an alarming 33 percent.
The best-case scenario for the network is that this is a just a temporary aberration, that fans over time have grown weary of the audition stage, which serves as a long pointless overture to the season, and that they will return once the real competition begins on March 1.
“I think ‘American Idol’s’ slipping numbers reflect fatigue, especially among more engaged, savvy viewers, because the show is incredibly boring this year,” says Andy Dehnart, editor of the website realityblurred.com via e-mail.
“The new judges brought some life to it last season, in part because they were new and unpredictable, but even they can’t help the show slog through its ever-predictable, excruciatingly drawn-out audition rounds.”
Recent history would suggest that those who abandoned ship will not be reboarding HMS Karaoke.
“American Idol’s” audience peaked in 2006, averaging 30.3 million viewers per episode for Season Five (a number it is generally believed will never again be attained by an entertainment series.)
The fan base has shrunk every year since then (with the exception of last season, which we’ll address in a moment). Thus far in Season 11,” Idol” is averaging just under 20 million viewers.
Granted, that’s a mob any network executive would trade her beach house for. Indeed, there’s a good chance “Idol” will finish in May as TV’s top-ranked series for a record eighth consecutive year.
But it’s still a steep drop-off from the show’s heyday. And there are other concerns.
“Every year, the median age (of the audience) gets older and older,” says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media in New York. “It started out in the low 30s and now it’s creeping close to 50.”
That trend, a liability for advertisers, has accelerated this season. “’Idol’ is not only losing viewers,” says Adgate, “the median age is almost three years older than it was a year ago.”
Interestingly, “Idol” seems to be operating on some kind of delayed reaction. Severe audience declines were forecast for the show last season, due to the departure of hanging judge and founding faulter Simon Cowell.
But Fox went the glamour route, bringing in rock star Steven Tyler and sex symbol Jennifer Lopez for the judges’ panel.
Suddenly, it was Simon who? Despite some rocky periods, “Idol” ended Season 10 with viewership up 4 percent. Not a stunning number, but still, the first upward tick since Taylor Hicks prevailed in Season Five.
The Tyler and Lopez gambit worked, but “Idol” may now be learning that you can’t light the same fireworks twice.
“Last year, they came out with such a bang. It was such a novelty to see Lopez and Tyler. They really upped their game in terms of celebrity quotient,” says Shirley Halperin, music editor for The Hollywood Reporter and author of the magazine’s blog, Idol Worship.
“This year feels kind of like the sophomore album,” she continues. “Everything seems a little ho-hum.”
Another element cramping “Idol’s” style is that the field of competitors has grown crowded over the years.
There are big budget shows like “The Voice” and “The X Factor” that are clearly patterned on the “Idol” formula. Young pop singers compete in many other prime time venues, from “The Sing Off” to “America’s Got Talent.”
And thanks to the massive success of “Glee,” musical performance scenes, which only a short time ago were a rarity on TV, are now commonplace. “Gossip Girl,” for instance, opened its 100th episode this week with a lavish staging of the show tune “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends.”
Yes, the hills are alive. Which makes it harder for “Idol” to differentiate its voice.
Fox certainly isn’t helping its own cause.
“I think the fact that ‘The X Factor’ ended on Dec. 22 and ‘Idol’ began on Jan. 18 — they just didn’t leave enough time in between where you could even start missing a singing show,” says Halperin.
But the network is fortunate in one regard. It doesn’t depend on “American Idol” as desperately as it used to. For years, Fox limped into January and waited for its miracle-worker, “Idol,” to single-handedly make its year end Nielsen numbers respectable. That’s changed.
“They’ve had a pretty decent season fueled by some first year shows like ‘The X Factor,’ ‘New Girl’ and ‘Terra Nova,’” says Adgate. “Now they’ve got ‘Alcatraz’ and ‘Touch’ and that ‘Bones’ spinoff, ‘The Finder.’ That’s a strong bench compared to previous years.”
So “Idol,” it’s all right if after 11 years, you’re showing your age. You’ve earned a bit of a rest.
“When all is said and done, when you look at this show and all it’s accomplished,” sasys Adgate, “it will go down as the most dominant show in the history of television.”