Each January, it's the sound of soaring television ratings: the sometimes off-key (or worse) singing by contestants on American Idol, the pop-culture phenomenon on Fox that is the USA's most-watched show.
When Season 7 of Idol premieres Tuesday (8 p.m. ET/PT), the show that has shaped pop stars, Grammy winners and even an Oscar recipient — and boosted sales in a sagging music industry — will return to a friendly playing field. A 9-week-old strike by Hollywood writers is decimating TV networks' lineups of scripted shows, so Idol will have less competition for viewers' attention than usual.
For Idol, the strike comes at an opportune time. Its ratings remain huge, averaging 30.2 million viewers an episode, but it is coming off its first ratings decline (1% in 2007) and a season that even those involved with the show say was thin on talent and personality. Attendance plunged for Idol's summer tour of live performances by the top 10 singers, going from 96% capacity in 2006 to 68% in 2007.
The rare bits of bad news have begun to raise questions about whether Idol has peaked and whether it has begun the type of ratings slide experienced by nearly all hit shows.
Idol judges and producers, and Fox executives, insist the show will remain dominant.
Last season followed "a year that was 10% up. In Year 5, for a show to go up is amazing. In Year 6, to stay steady was amazing," says Mike Darnell, Fox's reality programming chief. "My expectations are that it will be a monster hit again."
Idol insiders say the dip in ratings stemmed from the show focusing too much on star mentors for the contestants, and a group of finalists that lacked pizzazz. This season will have fewer mentors.
Some viewers tuned out the final rounds last year after the first several weeks of auditions — which feature talented singers and comically bad ones — drew record numbers of viewers.
This year's group, which judges have narrowed to about 50 from thousands of singers at auditions in seven cities, is more charismatic and diverse — in personality, background and singing style, judges and producers say.
"There's more personality, better stories (and) it's a better year" for talent, says judge Simon Cowell, an outspoken Brit who can level singers with withering putdowns. "I don't think the people last year were as good as they should have been. It was a miracle that we stayed as successful as we did. I will predict ratings will be up a minimum of 10% on last year for the whole season."
To try to make that happen, Idol producers are tweaking a show that last year averaged nearly 10 million more viewers than its closest competitor, ABC's Dancing With the Stars. Changes include:
Letting singers play musical instruments during their performances in the first combined gathering of audition survivors, known as the Hollywood Round.
Visiting finalists' hometowns and interviewing family and friends earlier in the process to help viewers get to know them faster.
Building a new set and creating a new opening credits sequence. Idol's theme song will remain the same.
Adding an hour to the Hollywood Round and a possible "where are they now?" segment to highlight earlier Idol performers on top-12 results shows.