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Has ‘American Idol’ Officially Entered Its Post-Phenom Phase?

Like 'Survivor' and other reality mega-hits, the singing competition can't stay on top forever

American Idol,” welcome to the next phase of your ratings life – the one in which you are no longer a red-hot phenomenon.

Survivor” survived it, going from national magazine covers to ambling along as another mere mortal among TV shows. Now the trick will be for Fox and the media to accept the singing stalwart’s new status – and likely temper expectations accordingly.

Headlines didn’t exactly accentuate the positive regarding “Idol’s” return – including coverage in Variety charting “American Idol’s” 22% decline in key demographics versus its premiere last season. Then again, it’s always interesting to see the mighty brought down a peg or two, and after getting sand kicked in their faces, other networks can’t help but derive a measure of satisfaction from its comeuppance.

Notably, the numbers dropped on Thursday night, despite the other majors having largely gotten out of its way, including a “Big Bang Theory” rerun. And as auditions go, it was hard to top the ready-made-for-the-Hallmark Channel heart-tugger the show delivered: Twin sisters, one of whom made it, while the other didn’t.

But more charitably — or maybe just realistically — it’s time to start looking at “American Idol” in a different light.

Nothing stays a megahit forever, especially in the reality-TV game, where the stars tend to burn very brightly. And while we’ll never know exactly how much the network contributed to hastening “Idol’s” return to Earth in its servicing of Simon Cowell’s ego, let’s just say having a TV twin sucking up oxygen during the fall almost surely represents a significant factor.

Indeed, by putting Fox in that bind – buy my near-identical singing competition show or watch me set up shop elsewhere – Cowell forced Fox to do what the network had long resisted — namely, airing two editions of “Idol” a year, something execs had fastidiously avoided precisely because they wanted to maintain the program’s event status. And frankly, if they were going to do that, they might as well have aired both under the “Idol” brand.

At this point, though, canceling “X Factor” might no longer be an RX by itself for righting the ship. That leaves Fox to contemplate a new existence where it can’t count on quite that huge midseason infusion of “Idol”-mania to propel the network to victory, which in recent years has helped obscure other missteps.

Of course, the “Survivor” analogy doesn’t fully capture what “Idol” has meant to Fox, since CBS programs 22 hours a week in primetime, versus Fox’s 15. Even without the expanded episodes that launch the season “Idol” wields outsized influence — accounting for a full 20% of Fox’s lineup, and really more than that given broadcasters’ modest results across the board Fridays and Saturdays.

Nevertheless, improving the actual product – as Fox looks to have done based on an initial sampling – might not be enough to alter the show’s trajectory. Either way, comparisons to the 30 million people “Idol” attracted in its heyday sound as dated as wondering why “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” ran out of answers and the Lakers aren’t contending for an NBA championship.

So while “American Idol” is clearly still an asset for Fox, the network should probably start getting used to the fact it’s not an “event” anymore – an overused term in the best of times. That also means sticking with the new format, if it appears to be working, and stemming the churn of judges in and out, which — after a rush of excitement and speculation — began to yield diminishing returns.

In that respect, Fox/“American Idol” are facing a familiar TV reality that ABC/“Millionaire” and CBS/“Survivor” and ABC/“Dancing With the Stars” and NBC/“The Voice” have faced or eventually will. Once that stage arrives, with apologies to Cher, all the golden tickets in the world won’t turn back time.

On the plus side, as “Survivor” has demonstrated, “Idol” can potentially remain a staple of Fox’s lineup for years to come, and there’s no shame in settling for hit, not game-changer. But its days as TV’s version of Godzilla are clearly behind it. Will a 500-pound gorilla do?

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