Show's popularity stems from various factors

Mark down the date. Certainly all TV executives around town are.

The sixth season of “American Idol” premieres Jan. 16 on Fox. The singing competition remains a cultural phenomenon, with an audience of nearly 31 million viewers per episode last season. Will that number go up or down this season? Trying to determine which way it’ll go is impossible.

But one can guarantee that “Idol” will shake up the TV landscape, with other shows taking cover and getting out of the way.

Many have theories on what it is about “Idol” that makes it such a huge hit. “Idol” exec producer Nigel Lythgoe says one reason the show has grown in popularity each season since its debut in summer 2002 is that viewers identify with the show’s judges — Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. The trio’s love-hate relationships with one another have become Must See TV.

“They’re dysfunctional, have spats, turn bitter on each other and then kiss,” Lythgoe says. “They play a major part in each other’s lives and a major part in the audience’s life.”

But also luring fans is the transformation of regular Joes from aspiring warblers into confident performers. Viewers relate to the contestants, which isn’t often the case with celebrity reality stars. And the audience — through their voting on the contestants — is drawn to being part of the action.

“Idol’s” popularity also stems from the uncertainty of what will happen in each episode, observes Stephen Battaglio, senior correspondent at TV Guide.

“It’s built like a sporting event,” he says. “There’s a level of unpredictability and an undetermined outcome you don’t have in scripted television.”

Bill Goodykoontz, TV critic for the Arizona Republic, adds that much of “Idol’s” success stems from how Fox has scheduled it, half a season, giving viewers several months to long for its return.

“They didn’t overrun it, like with so many reality shows,” he says. “They have created a demand for it, and when it finally arrives, people are stoked.”

Whatever the reason for “Idol’s” popularity, the impact it has had on the business will forever remain a milestone in TV history.

Fox ranked No. 1 for the first time ever in the 18-49 demographic in the 2004-05 season and held on to that title last season. And its revenue has surged largely due to “Idol,” to an estimated $1.8 billion in this past summer’s upfront ad-selling season, only $100 million shy of NBC despite having far fewer primetime hours.

“The way that Fox has managed this asset has completely disrupted the balance of power among the networks,” Battaglio notes.

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