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.
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.
[Related: Several 'American Idol' Concerts Canceled]
The idea of a panel of experts weighing in on our every action seems so intrinsic that it's hard to imagine it was ever not here. While "American Idol" was not the first show to use judges, the immediate sensation caused by Cowell and his buddy routine with Paula Abdul launched a million imitators.
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6. Second acts for aging stars
Paula Abdul came back from career oblivion to star in the biggest show on television for eight seasons, using the platform to launch jewelry lines and music videos galore. So successful was this path for Abdul (while it lasted) that it has become the natural path of choice for a legion of stars whose days of No. 1 singles are behind them.
7. Real people as stars
In a time when entertainment was heavily packaged and network controlled, "normal people" didn't slip through the cracks onto the airwaves very often. "Idol" got the ball rolling, making stars of Justin and Kelly (and William Hung); and from there, the road to "Duck Dynasty," the Kardashians, and "Teen Mom" was clear.
Before "Idol," summer was the time when folks were out camping and at the beach and the networks filled their airwaves with reruns and shows they were looking to dump. "Idol" was allowed on the air because it was a low-cost, starless production, and it debuted after a rerun of "That '70s Show." No more. Summer programming today is as vibrant and competitive as anything.
9. Variety on TV
When "Idol" hit the airwaves, network programming was composed of two things: comedies and dramas (and "Survivor"). Music had disappeared from the lineup. "Idol" ushered in the biggest wave of music- and variety-oriented television since Ed Sullivan and Sonny and Cher dominated primetime.
10. Ryan Seacrest
America needed a new Dick Clark, and just in time we got one. And his empire to boot — stretching from a daily radio show to the Kardashians.
Since the miniseries era of the '70s, no one had had the guts to stretch out a show to more than two hours a week of airtime. Due to America's array of time zones, "Idol" was initially forced to add a second night against its better judgment. That accident ultimately meant that Fox had not only the highest rated show on TV but also the second highest, with the results show.
Check out performance photos from this past season of "Idol":
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