"American Idol," which begins its 10th season with a two-night premiere Wednesday and Thursday, is at a turning point.
While the twice-weekly shows remain the most popular and second most-popular shows on television, ratings have slipped in recent years. More worrisome to those behind "Idol" is that the expressed purpose of the show -- to find a musical superstar -- has not happened in the past five seasons, and may not ever happen again due to the steep decline in CD sales.
"This year they are rolling the dice," says Richard Rushfield, who has covered "Idol" for the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Beast, and is the author of "American Idol: The Untold Story," which will be published today. "They are going to reinvent the show in a lot of ways, and I think the results will either breathe new life into it or hasten the decline."
The reinvention includes two new judges -- platinum-selling recording artist Jennifer Lopez and Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame member Steven Tyler, the frontman of Aerosmith. Lopez and Tyler join the only remaining original judge, Randy Jackson, replacing "Idol" founder Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres.
A preview DVD sent out by Fox highlights this season's talented singers, rather than the laughably bad ones who have traditionally been a large part of audition shows. The judges collaborate and discuss more. In the first audition shown on the preview DVD, a 16-year-old with a smooth baritone astonishes the judges, and Tyler recites an obscene rhyme to praise him, shocking Lopez and Jackson.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Rushfield says, "The biggest thing is going to be determined well after the season -- will the show create a real recording star? If 'Idol' can no longer do that, then you've got a real issue that you have to deal with, in terms of what the story of the show is. If they come out of this season and they find another Carrie Underwood, or another Kelly Clarkson who becomes an enormous hit, then people will say the show is revitalized and more relevant than ever. But creating a Carrie Underwood is a lot harder now than it was six years ago."
Rushfield points to the dramatic plunge in CD sales nationally to explain why the most recent five winners -- Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze -- did not see the same success that earlier winners did, specifically Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Fantasia Barrino.
"Album sales in particular are a fraction of what they were when 'Idol' debuted," Rushfield says. In the same five years that sales of "Idol" winners' songs have declined, "what has also happened is that a huge bulk of America has stopped buying record albums at all," he says. "These may be the same people that in that time just stopped buying music."
But a second issue is that the model that worked so well 10 years ago -- people elect a winner, whose music they then buy -- may have a fatal flaw. "Idol" viewers, even avid voters, may have learned that the people who make good TV don't necessarily make music that's good enough to buy.
"When 'Idol' was started, the idea was that if you set this up as a democracy, there was just a perfect ecosystem, because of course people would buy the albums made by the person that they had said they wanted to see be a star," says Rushfield. "For five years, it did function that way. But I think in the last five years you see this disconnect. A lot of the people who vote look at it as a TV show and see that separately from the recording career to come."
Kris Allen, who won Season Eight over the more flamboyant and more commercially successful Adam Lambert, fits the mold of "the low-key rocker guy" who has won in the past three seasons, starting with David Cook and ending with last year's winner, Lee DeWyze. Allen may have drawn votes because of his good looks, personal appeal and underdog status, Rushfield says.
"It makes a great story for television, but it's not necessarily why people buy singles, that he has a nice family, or this meant so much to him. You want to buy a single because you want to listen to it at the gym or something," he says.
Ticket sales for "Idol" concerts also slumped last year. Slow sales forced the cancellation of several stops on last summer's tour, including the Buffalo show planned for September. But other high-profile concerts were cut short or skipped dates because of poor sales last summer, including Christina Aguilera, Rihanna and the Jonas Brothers.
Rushfield is not concerned about the show's loss of viewers. "For the past few seasons it's been on this steady downhill trajectory, but I think people get a little overdramatic about how much it's fallen off," he says. "It's significant but not catastrophic when you're at the height that the show is. It remains the No. 1 and the No. 2 show on television."
Last year's season premiere drew 29.9 million viewers, just 2 percent lower than the debut show of the previous season. The 2009 premiere's viewership was down 10 percent from the 2008 show. The 37.4 million who watched the 2007 debut represents the series' high point for opening nights, but as of last season, "Idol" remained the top-rated show for five years among all viewers.
In May 2010, for the first time in five years, an episode of "Dancing With the Stars" bumped the twice-weekly episodes of "Idol" from the top positions to second and third.
In addition to the new judges and a new band leader, with Ray Chew replacing Rickey Minor, the show will air on new nights, moving from Tuesday and Wednesday to Wednesday and Thursday. There is a new set, and music producer Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, has joined the show as an in-house mentor. Viewers will see Iovine work with contestants, and Interscope Geffen A&M, rather than Sony, will market, promote and distribute albums from the show's finalists and winner.
This year, 15-year-olds were eligible to audition and gender parity is out -- no more equal numbers of males and females. The show's executive producer, Ken Warwick, told Entertainment Weekly, "If I've got six fantastic boys and four average girls, I'm certainly not going to throw out a fantastic boy to put in another average girl, or vice versa."
Warwick also told EW, "We're going ahead with a whole fresh change, simply because we never thought in our wildest dreams that any show would last 10 years on American television."
Rushfield says he will join millions of others in front of the TV on Wednesday night for the start of the new season.
"For me, 'American Idol' is like baseball or football is for some people," he says. "It's a new season, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it's going to come together. This year is going to be the biggest makeover we've seen on 'Idol,' so it should be interesting."