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The Globe and Mail

John Doyle: End of American Idol a big step to end of TV as we know it

The great Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith lives in my neighbourhood. We pass each other occasionally. No words are spoken. He doesn't know me but I recognize his familiar face fixed in eternal seriousness.

He does follow me on Twitter. On Monday, Sexsmith tweeted, "So American Idol is being cancelled after its 15th season! (Insert happy dance here)."

Most musicians loathe American Idol. And yes, after its upcoming season, it's toast. Musicians hate it for its tackiness – amateurs doing cover versions of familiar songs, and more interested in celebrity than craft and musicianship. Know-nothing judges making syrupy or snarky remarks while eyeing the packaging and marketing of a singer - not the songs or the artistry.

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The end of Idol is hugely significant. It's a cultural shift, but not necessarily for the reasons that musicians like Sexsmith have hated it. It's so over because it's just an old, tired TV format. This is not the end of television as we know it, but it's a big step toward that.

American Idol changed television for more than a decade. It proved that, even as the TV landscape splintered and audiences moved to specialty cable and premium channels, it was possible to air a TV show that viewers of all ages and backgrounds watched avidly.

Hardly anyone on this side of the Atlantic had heard of Simon Cowell when American Idol launched him and his singing competition show on an unsuspecting public in 2002 on the Fox network. He was English and rude and Idol's first star. Emerging from the tacky end of the English pop-music racket, he soon carved out a vast empire based on the popularity of performance-based reality TV shows. After Idol took off in the United States, Cowell was involved in British and international versions of Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor.

The secret to Idol's enormous success was its simplicity and promise of uplift – the talented amateur from nowhere landing fame and riches. Launched into the confusing and lugubrious post-9/11 culture of the U.S., it had a Depression-era quality to it. It was reminiscent of the Depression-era dance marathons (depicted in the classic 1969 movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) in which desperate people danced and danced in hopes of landing a cash prize, all the while manipulated by a scheming emcee whose job was to keep an audience paying to watch the competition. On Idol, the unknown singers were the dancers and Simon Cowell was the cunning, slippery emcee.

The novelty took a long time to diminish. A few years ago, Idol began its ninth season with 29-million U.S. viewers and ended the season with five-million less, but was still a formidable force. Competing broadcasters were unwilling to air anything except police procedurals against it, and often aired old episodes. In Canada, the ratings held strong, with a season average of 2.7-million viewers on CTV during it ninth and tenth seasons. This year on Fox it was down to an average of 10.3 million viewers.

Another reason for its popularity was its status as a pleasant alternative to an increasingly grim, gruesome menu on network TV. As the Law & Order and CSI shows became more lurid and often disturbing, Idol was wholesome. Cheering for an unknown singer was a lot easier on the psyche than watching another monstrous serial killer stalk, torture and dismember young women. We saw a lot of that in the last decade.

And Idol, with its live, competitive aspects was a boon to Fox and CTV. When Idol was at its height, it had to be seen live. If you taped it to watch later you missed the talked-about moments, which inevitably became social-media sensations, and you were late to the party. Like live sports events, American Idol was a vital force for getting the audience to watch advertising.

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Perhaps the end was on the horizon when Simon Cowell's spin-off, The X Factor, failed to remotely match Idol's success. A grander, more grotesque Idol just didn't click. And before that, the cheesy Canadian Idol version faded fast.

It was what Idol begat – those countless other competition shows – which put a question mark on the assertion that the show's cancellation is truly the end of an era. ABC renewed Dancing with the Stars for a 20th season. The CW has renewed America's Next Top Model for its 22nd outing. And NBC is sticking with America's Got Talent and The Voice.

It isn't over, this era. It's merely fading. But already real musicians, in my 'hood and elsewhere, are dancing on American Idol's grave.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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