'American Idol,' 'Dancing With The Stars' Still The Reality Giants To Beat

Much has been said these last few months about the precipitous ratings slide Fox’s “American Idol” suffered this year, and the recent decline of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” If you accept current audience measurement systems as accurate they would indicate that both shows suffered double-digit drops, with “Idol’”s loss coming in as high as 25%.

To which I say, “So what?”

Even at lesser numbers, both of these shows remain ratings powerhouses because they were so big to begin with. Their still-vital performances this spring were remarkable achievements given that “Idol” just completed its 11th season and “Dancing” its 14th. Further, both shows remain at the top in terms of audience interest and media buzz, and when they reach the end of their seasons, as they did this week, television suddenly feels so… empty.

Despite its flaws (too much interference from mentors, too much emphasis on the studio audience), “Idol” this season once again hit the top of its game. I’m giving full credit to the contestants, as a group arguably the most talented in the history of this show. There are likely to be many future stars among this year’s top ten; in fact, I think Phillip Phillips, Jessica Sanchez, Joshua Ledet, Hollie Cavanaugh, Skylar Laine and Colton Dixon each could have beaten the winners of many previous seasons had they been in their competitions. Credit for this impressive selection of talent must go to judges Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson, who together appear to be much better at identifying true potential in amateur performers than any combination of judges in “Idol’”s past, including those that featured Simon Cowell. (The group these three cobbled together last season was pretty spectacular, as well.)



“Dancing,” meanwhile, also had one of its most rewarding seasons, in the process bringing to the attention of the American television audience a couple of exciting international stars: Welsh classical singer Katherine Jenkins and Cuban actor William Levy, both largely unknown to people here when “Dancing’”s just-concluded cycle began. Of course, NFL superstar Donald Driver, who won the coveted mirror ball, was already known in millions of homes. What spectacular final competitors the three of them turned out to be! This show hasn’t lost any of its strength, no matter the ratings reports.

The very talented and charming Phillip was the winner on “Idol,” though the equally amazing Jessica probably should have been. (It would have been nice to see a young woman win, rather than a young man for the fifth straight season.) Fascinatingly, even though the year to year ratings decline for this “Idol” finale was reportedly in the range of 25%, host Ryan Seacrest boasted on Wednesday’s finale that Tuesday’s final competition episode set “a new world record” with “a staggering 132 million votes.” That means while the number of people watching went way down, the number of votes went way up.

If there is indeed a significant decline in interest for this show one need look no further for an explanation. Something is askew, and viewers may be responding in kind. Plainly, the “Idol” voting system doesn’t serve everyone equally, which has probably compromised the exciting interactive component that initially drew millions of people to this show. This issue should be addressed and rectified by next season. At risk of sounding hopelessly retro, what would be wrong with restoring some kind of parity by restricting the voting to phone calls and texts only in a one-vote-per-number system? We might then all be allowed to feel that our individual votes mattered, rather than our skills (and patience and endurance) at firing off as many votes as possible in a variety of ways.

All these years later, it is still true that no show creates household names faster or with more impact (fleeting, lasting or otherwise) than “Idol.” We’ve been talking and thinking about Phillip Phillips, Jessica Sanchez, Joshua Ledet, Hollie Cavanaugh, Skylar Laine and Colton Dixon for much of 2012, though most of us hadn’t heard of any of them back in January (except for viewers who remember that Colton auditioned for the show last year). It says a lot about the power of “Idol” that people still become so invested in its contestants in so short a time.

Interestingly, other than winner Jermaine Paul (who performed at NBC’s upfront event) I can’t recall the names of the final four on NBC’s “The Voice,” the show that many predicted would bring “Idol” down, and which ended its second season only two weeks ago.

I suspect I’m not alone. For all the fuss about “The Voice,” it only plays as something special during the first third of its cycle (that would be the chair-spinning phase). The rest of its season isn’t nearly as impactful as “Idol,” because viewers simply do not have as much time to get to know the contestants.

NBC has said that the show’s format next season will be tweaked to help maintain and maximize viewer investment. As much as I enjoy “The Voice,” and as hopeful as I am that NBC will strengthen it, I don’t believe that it will ever be the phenomenon that “American Idol” has been from the start. Just try to imagine the last 11 years without "Idol."

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