‘American Idol’ Nears Its End, and TV Looks That Much Smaller

American Idol finale
Michael Becker/FOX

American Idol” not surprisingly begins its farewell season Wednesday awash in sentimentality. Not only do former high-profile contestants and winners make early appearances, but there’s even a rare look-back glimpse of original co-host Brian Dunkleman during the opening clip package.

In a way, though, the real nostalgia should be for a show that becomes such a massive, shared cultural experience, and that casts this kind of enormous shadow. Because while the genre will continue in various forms, each time TV bids farewell to another one of these mega-hits, the screen seems to get just a little bit smaller.

This century, certainly, has been heavily defined by reality-TV sensations, starting with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (which actually made its debut in the summer of 1999), followed by “Survivor” and “Idol.” Along the way, there have been plenty of bright-shining flashes in the pan (see “Joe Millionaire”), but few to rival the around-the-campfire glow and endurance of these programs.

How big was “American Idol?” At its peak the show averaged more than 30 million viewers over a season, earning the nickname “the Death Star” (referring to another pretty durable franchise, come to think of it) in TV circles because of all the competing programs it helped destroy.

Yet while the hopes and dreams of the contestants haven’t changed in that time, for networks, their reasonable aspirations have. Although TV can still point to plenty of mass-appeal franchises, the kind of water-cooler sensation that unites a mass audience – as opposed to passionate, like-minded smaller groups – happens with less frequency, barring the lingering exception of the playoff football airing in January and culminating with the Super Bowl.

Granted, there are aspects now of communal viewing – such as real-time commentary on Twitter – that do create ripple effects through the culture. For the most part, however, even something like “The Voice” is a pretty pallid approximation of what “Survivor” or “Idol” accomplished in their heydays, including all the “stars” those shows created.

Perhaps wisely, “Idol’s” Jan. 6 premiere doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, diving into the auditions, filled as usual with the thrill of victory and the agony of disappoint, the heart-tugging of sob stories and the comic whiff of delusion. Beyond the sheer manipulation of featuring several contestants who show up with babies (or in one case, a very pregnant spouse), there’s an already-disclosed Kanye West/Kim Kardashian cameo, which as shark-jumping moves go, might signal that it’s time to retire this franchise if Fox hadn’t already done so.

Truth be told, “American Idol” probably could have dragged on a few more seasons, having stumbled into a trio of judges — after the crippling loss of Simon Cowell — through trial and error, with nice chemistry; still, Fox was right to put the concept to rest, recognizing that it needed to take measures to plan for its future and that waiting would only make matters worse. Fox’s smaller primetime footprint (15 hours a week, compared to 22 for ABC, CBS and NBC) already magnified its reliance on the program, and hanging on much longer would have risked turning it into the reality-TV equivalent of Norma Desmond, futilely proclaiming, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got smaller.”

That said, no one should be surprised if, after a respectful period of dormancy, “Idol” resurfaces. Because if there’s one thing as certain as the whoops and hollers that greet the phrase “You’re going to Hollywood!,” it’s that anything that once possessed the power to be dubbed a Death Star won’t stay decommissioned forever.

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