The demise of American Idol has been greatly exaggerated. Now beginning its 10th season, the singing competition is one of the few TV shows that consistently convinces a wide range of TV viewers to tune in each week.
This year, Fox revamped the franchise, booting judges Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres. They were intended to replace the original judges, the caustic but truthful Simon Cowell and the sparky but spacy Paula Abdul, but didn't draw a big enough audience last season. Host Ryan Seacrest and judge Randy Jackson remain. Joining them are pop superstar Jennifer Lopez and rocker Steven Tyler.
Twenty-six million viewers tuned in to watch the season premiere, smaller than previous years but still a huge number. As a family show that appeals to kids as well as parents, it hits the sweet spot. Still, that doesn't entirely explain its success. Why does Idol buck the overall trend of viewers, particularly younger viewers, turning off the TV?
It must have something to do with the universal appeal of watching people pursue a passion while still needing to achieve excellence. No one gets a free pass on Idol. The self-deluded are weeded out quickly.
Beyond that, however, a singer has to connect with an audience, transmit emotion, and move people in order to win. Take the case of Paris Tassin, a beautiful single mother from New Orleans whose audition video has gone viral. Pregnant at 18, she found out her baby would be disabled and was encouraged to have an abortion. She did not. "She's the best thing that happened to me," Tassin, now 23, says of her daughter, whose hydrocephalus is treatable. Singing for her daughter, Tassin says, she put every ounce of emotion into Carrie Underwood's haunting song "Temporary Home." The rendition made Jennifer Lopez cry along with viewers.
Sociologists could, and probably have, written papers on voting patterns in the show. Physical appearance, race, worldview, and politics have been as important at times as singing ability. But underneath all the flash, witty judges, and occasional controversy, there is something real, something vital, and something worth watching.