As “American Idol’s” ratings have fallen into the realm of the ordinary over the past few seasons, the narrative surrounding the decline has obscured just how massive and landscape-altering the show was for so long.
“Idol” acquired the nickname the Death Star for a reason: It wiped out everything in its path for years on end, to the point that for a while in the mid-2000s, you could gauge other networks’ confidence — or lack thereof, in some cases — in certain shows by the way they programmed opposite “Idol.”
It was so big that on several occasions — the Season 2 finale in 2003 and the premieres of Seasons 5-9 — it outperformed the Oscar ceremony in that same season. It ranked No. 1 in adults 18-49 for seven consecutive seasons.
Here’s a look at how the show performed over the years, first in adults 18-49*:
And in total viewers:
(*All season ratings figures cited here are combined averages for all airings.)
The early days
“American Idol” started as a summer series back when “summer series” meant “something we’re not sure of” even more than it does now. Its premiere on June 11, 2002 drew a 4.8 rating in adults 18-49 and 9.85 million viewers.
At the time, that was promising but hardly world-beating. In the pre-DVR era, and before cable original programming exploded, top network shows had 18-49 ratings in the 9s; “Friends” finished No. 1 in viewers for the 2001-02 season with an average of 24.5 million.
Even midway through its initial run, “Idol” was finishing behind “CSI” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” reruns in viewers (comprehensive 18-49 numbers for that far back are hard to come by).
But it kept building: 5.3 for the Top 10 performances. A 6.3 for the Top 7, then two straight 6.2s and a jump to 7.9 for the Top 4 (Kelly Clarkson, Justin Guarini, Nikki McKibbin and Tamyra Gray). Results shows ran a little behind the ratings for the performance shows but were climbing as well. The season closed with an 8.3 for the Top 3 results, 9.3 for the last performance shows and a 10.7 for the finale on Sept. 4. FOX officially had a hit.
Season 2 — the Ruben Studdard-Clay Aiken year — exploded, with 18-49 ratings growing by a ridiculous 62 percent (6.2 to 10.2) and viewers by an even more ridiculous 72 percent (12.64 million to 21.74 million). The Season 2 finale drew “Idol’s” best numbers ever: 16.8 in 18-49 and 38.06 million viewers.
And then … it kept growing. Though no single episode ever matched the Ruben-Clay finale, “Idol” built on its season-long ratings in each of the next three years. Season 5, with Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee and Chris Daughtry, was the show’s apex, averaging 12.6 in the demo and 30.75 million viewers. It had a 26 percent lead over the No. 2 series that year, “Grey’s Anatomy” (9.3).
Season 6 (12.1, 30.26 million) nearly matched the heights of the previous year, and while subsequent years fell off a bit, the show never declined more than 10 percent year-to-year through Season 10 in 2011. It was a remarkably dominant decade.
Back to earth
With Season 11, however, the show took a tumble. While it was still a ratings force, its 18-49 rating fell by 30 percent from the previous year (8.6 to 6.0). With the ratings drop came a flood of “‘American Idol’ is in trouble” stories, not helped any by the on-screen mess that was Season 12 and the launch in 2011 of “The Voice,” which has since taken over as the top-rated talent competition on TV.
Subsequent drops weren’t quite as steep, but they did continue (although this final season is actually up a bit over last year). By its final years “Idol” was not a show other networks feared — heck, it’s not even No. 1 on FOX anymore.
The fact that it acted like any other aging TV show in its final years, however, doesn’t diminish the incredible run it had. It’s not overstating anything to say that the nature of TV now very likely means we’ll never see a show dominate the ratings by so much, for so long, again.