Swan song for 'American Idol' after 15 game-changing years

LOS ANGELES -- It started on June 11, 2002, with a couple of unfamiliar hosts posing in an empty theater and making an overblown declaration to TV viewers.

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"Live on this stage, an unknown talent will be launched into superstardom," said Brian Dunkleman.

"You at home decide who will become the next American idol," intoned Ryan Seacrest.

The reasonable reaction: uh-huh, sure. But it turned out the two were underselling Fox's "American Idol."

The singing contest, which begins its 15th and final season Wednesday, was a blockbuster that invigorated its network. It made stars of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and others, and resurrected the TV talent show as a boom industry that includes NBC's "The Voice" and ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

"It not only was a huge success for Fox but impacted everyone else," said Bill Carroll, media analyst with Katz Television Group. "It once again underscored the fact that broadcast television is communal and an event."

"American Idol," from megaproducer Simon Fuller and based on his British hit "Pop Idol," did even more. It breathed life into the music industry as it and network TV both grappled with technology-driven changes in consumer habits.

The show's end is the result of dwindling ratings, the inevitable fate of even durable performers. "Idol," which averaged more than 30 million weekly viewers at its 2006 peak and ranked No. 1 for nine consecutive years, averaged about 11 million last season (still enough by today's standards to land it in the top 20, but with fewer advertiser-favored younger viewers).

Whatever its change in fortunes, the series will get a send-off worthy of a television landmark, said executive producer Trish Kinane.

As she sees it, that means paying tribute to its past while focusing on the battle among this year's contestants to become the last "Idol" winner.

"It's that tricky thing of, 'Hey, it's the 15th season, let's do nostalgia, let's look back at the show's really rich history,'" Kinane said. "But on the other hand, you've got to find an amazing American Idol. So we're trying to combine both of those things."

To accomplish that "organically," she said, past winners and familiar runners-up will be sprinkled throughout the season, starting with the open auditions in which Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Taylor Hicks and others were on hand to share tips with the hopefuls.

Plans also call for duets pairing contestants with their now-famous predecessors, who "all want to be involved, somehow," Kinane said.

A famous non-Idol, Kanye West, made a surprise appearance at the judges' auditions in San Francisco in September, with wife Kim Kardashian West along as his cheerleader. His "tryout" is included in Wednesday's episode, which airs in Canada on CTV.

The season debut is a four-hour, two-night affair, airing from 8-10 p.m. ET Wednesday and Thursday and opening on a retrospective note with the Seacrest-Dunkleman '02 clip.

One contestant featured in the premiere demonstrates the show's impressive hold on its fans. Michelle Marie Lecza of Daytona Beach, Florida, recalls watching it as a 4-year-old and can recite all of the winners, in order.

"'American Idol' is what I based my life off of. I am going to walk into the audition room and go get my dream," the braces-wearing 15-year-old says.

Such fervor made "American Idol" a well-timed hit. With social media gaining steam, viewers wanted to get in on the real-time conversation about "Idol" - good news for networks selling commercial airtime and the sponsors who wanted their ads to be seen, not skipped as the show was replayed on a DVR.

The live "Idol" episodes increased that appetite and launched the networks' embrace of a variety of other live broadcasts that included NBC's musicals "The Sound of Music" and "The Wiz."

It was a salve as well for the music business: In 2009, Steve Knopper, author of "Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age," called "American Idol" and its robust digital sales one of the few bright spots for the industry as consumers grew increasingly resistant to shelling out for albums.

The series became such an impressive promotional platform that established artists including Steven Tyler, Mariah Carey and Prince dropped in as panelists, mentors and performers.

So did Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban, returning for their third year together as judges to usher "Idol" to its conclusion. They're joined by the savvy, unflappable Seacrest, the show's on-camera linchpin who outlasted fellow original cast members Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson (and Dunkleman, who was one-and-done).

Urban said he's focused less on the show's farewell than what he calls the "job at hand."

"I more often forget it's the last season until somebody mentions it," the country music star said during a production break at the Dolby Theatre. "It's just finding the right person and making sure we don't miss somebody."

He said the show retains its power to jump-start a beginning career. For the farewell season, some 75,000 people swarmed to auditions in Atlanta; Denver; Philadelphia and Little Rock, Arkansas, in addition to San Francisco.

"I love the fact that these guys and girls still see the potency and potential of something like 'Idol' to take them to places really, really quickly," Urban said.

It would be ideal if the final season produces another "American Idol" pop superstar, Connick said.

The show "has had a lot of hits, had a lot of misses. I would love to see somebody come out and put a bookend on what Kelly Clarkson did the first year, which is to sell a ton of records, sell a lot of concert tickets and became a household name," the jazz musician said.

"That would be a great way to end it," he said.


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