How ‘American Idol’ redefined television

Success is derived by seeing common folk rise in rank

In terms of viewership, renewed energy and, naturally, a galvanizing batch of singers, the show is reminiscent of its early days, when the explosive ratings and excitement over fresh-faced musical hopefuls seemed to herald a new era in primetime.

At 10 years old, Fox’s talent-discovering behemoth “American Idol” is having perhaps its surest season.

“It became an instant phenomenon,” recalls TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “With ‘Idol’ you’ve got a show that’s had as seismic an effect on television as anything, pretty much creating a new type of TV show.”

That new type of show was, in creator-executive producer Simon Fuller’s thinking, a mixture of old — talent variety shows have been around since Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour” — and modern, using the interactivity of today’s technology.

“When Simon Fuller first thought up ‘Idol,’ he thought of it as an online-only show, and this was at a time when there were maybe 10 million email accounts on the entire planet,” says Richard Rushfield, author of “American Idol: The Untold Story.” “So turning over the controls to audience participation was in its very DNA.”

One of the keys to the show’s success, says NPR music critic Ann Powers, is its redefinition of pop stardom for music-loving Americans.

“Most average people thought of professional musicians as a separate realm from themselves,” says Powers. ” ‘Idol’ was instrumental in breaking down that barrier. It was the fact that seemingly average people were becoming stars on the show, and we were on the journey with them.”

Watching a Southern tomboy such as inaugural season winner Kelly Clarkson corral a big voice into a honed, versatile instrument, or this year’s Tourette’s-afflicted rocker James Durbin learn to overcome his emotions from week to week — coupled with the audience’s say-so in their fates — is where “American Idol” earns its emotional stakes as memorable television, says Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz.

“It makes people invested in the show in a way they weren’t invested in other competition shows,” he says. “It’s a narrative of self-improvement. But then the herd gets thinned, and we all get to vote thumbs up or thumbs down.”

But not before blistering comments from British A&R man Simon Cowell, whose starmaking “mean judge” persona helped mitigate any gooey sentiment “Idol” wrested from its aspirants’ stories.

“He helped pop fans think of themselves as critics,” says Powers, “but it’s never about the judges. The contestants are what matters.”

Especially when they might go on to sell millions of albums. “Idol” has spawned such multi-platinum artists as Clarkson and Carrie Underwood (both Grammy winners), and an Academy Award-winner in Jennifer Hudson (for “Dreamgirls”).

It increased the sales of already-known artists, too, in addition to helping launch up-and-comers. Lady Gaga’s theatrical performance of “Poker Face” during “Idol”‘s eighth season is often cited as a defining moment in her pop ascendancy.

“America then knew that they weren’t just dealing with a strong artist with a hit song, but a real creative force,” says Tom Corson, exec VP of RCA Music Group. “‘Idol’ is one of the great destinations for established artists to showcase their wares.”

Of course, trusting viewers with who goes forward, and who just goes, has its drawbacks. Much has been made over the years about shocking dismissals of projected finalists, from Tamyra Gray the first season to Chris Daughtry’s fourth-place finish in season five and this year’s early exit for favorite Pia Toscano. It’s the nature of the beast, though, according to exec producer Nigel Lythgoe.

“It’s part of the ‘Idol’ jolt,” he says. “It brings people back in and gets them focused on voting.”

Nevertheless, Lythgoe says, there are potential ways to remedy such unforeseen heartbreaks. “That can be avoided by going to America to vote on the bottom three and then the judges vote who goes home. Then you wouldn’t need the save card, which I’m not a fan of.”

Lythgoe’s stewardship, along with producing partner Ken Warwick, helped shepherd “Idol” to success from the beginning, but after eight seasons, Lythgoe left. He returned to the show this year, reacting to the exit of Cowell after season nine as an opportunity to “dust it off.” Lythgoe is honest about what wasn’t working anymore.

“What I viewed was a slight disinterest” among the judges, he says of the turbulent four-judge ninth season that included Ellen DeGeneres. “We lost the wonderful camaraderie and relationships. I don’t really feel Ellen fitted in, and there was a certain lack of talent last year. It was a good time to take over.”

High praise for new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, plus a stronger and showier talent pool and fewer gimmicky theme nights, have made their mark this season. Viewership is up from last year, and musings about the shelf life of “Idol” — which has been a ratings anchor for Fox and reliable lead-in show for other programs on the network — have subsided.

“I do think JLo and Steven Tyler have revived the show,” says Powers. “I think the producers have learned that it’s such a durable formula that it doesn’t take much to revive it. It’s got all the elements Americans like. It’s got the sports element, in that it’s a competition. It also has the music element, the small-town America element and it’s got gossip. It’s got everything.”

It all goes back to the interactivity, says Rushfield, that when it comes right down to it, viewers feel as if it’s their show.

“It belongs to them,” he says. “Singing is such an emotional experience and an emotional spectacle to watch, that to do it as a competition always makes for powerful drama. And ‘Idol’ has harnessed that better than anyone else.”