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.
Each season, Idol's first several episodes are among its most-watched. They feature auditions with equal parts caterwauling and self-delusion, along with a sprinkling of top singing talent. Auditions from Philadelphia and Dallas will be featured Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.
"Our one secret weapon is the audition shows," Cowell says. "It's like the musical Super Bowl. They are the heart to American Idol, all the craziness, all the emotion, all the fun. In a way, it's become the best comedy in America."
Cowell dismisses complaints that the judges were too mean to some singers last year.
"Sometimes we say things that maybe we shouldn't," he says. "But we're not drowning kittens."
The strike's impact
The dearth of scripted programming could send more viewers Idol's way, although growth isn't likely to be dramatic because so many watch the show already, says Brad Adgate of ad buyer Horizon Media. A less likely possibility, he says, is that Idol could suffer a bit if viewers abandon TV lineups bloated with reality shows because of the writers' strike.
The biggest benefit from the strike, he says, may be that it will prevent bolder scheduling moves against Idol by competing networks. They have kept their strongest shows away from the Idol wave but might have reassessed that strategy after the show's ratings hit a plateau in 2007.
"The other networks might have been a little more likely to counter-program the show," says Adgate, who predicts Fox once again will finish first for the season among viewers ages 18 to 49.
Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says Idol doesn't plan to add extra hours to take advantage of the strike, in keeping with a strategy aimed at not overexposing Fox's prime-time jewel.
Judge Paula Abdul likes the show's plan to focus more on introducing talented young singers to viewers. "We want to look for ways to delve into the fabric of their lives and spend a little more time finding out what makes up the magic of who these kids are," she says.
The singers are worth knowing, host Ryan Seacrest says. "There's a real intensity to these contestants, even the younger ones."
Fans say the lack of diverse talent in last season's contestant field weakened Idol's appeal.
"They could've kept ratings steady (in the finals round) if there had been more variety in the top 12," says Kimberly Lawson, 22, of Bakersfield, Calif. "That's one of the biggest reasons why Season 5 drew in so many people; there was something for everyone. (Last) year, there wasn't a country singer and there wasn't a rocker."
Ryan Welton, 37, of Norman, Okla., says it's only natural that a show as successful as Idol would level off in ratings. He says it may have peaked in Season 5, which many consider to be Idol's best, but that talented singers can keep audience declines to a minimum.
In making slight changes to the show, Idol producers have declined to try to impose a one-fan, one-vote telephone and text-message voting system that some fans say would be fairer to talented singers.
"One of the reasons some viewers have grown weary of Idol is because, at times, certain contestants with what we believe to be superior talent fall victim to contestants who have capitalized on their own cult of personality" to win fans' votes, says Welton, citing the success last season of Sanjaya Malakar, a singer of limited talent who finished seventh.
Idol has lived up to its "Search for a Superstar" slogan with the success of Carrie Underwood (Season 4's winner) and Kelly Clarkson (the Season 1 champ), both Grammy winners with multiplatinum albums. Chris Daughtry, fourth in Season 5, has done well on radio, on tour and in CD sales.
"Idol is the quickest rocket ship to the top for a kid wanting to make it in the music business," judge Randy Jackson says.
Last year's winner, Jordin Sparks, initially had slow sales for her self-titled album. Cowell refers to her as "good (but) nothing to let off fireworks about." However, her single Tattoo was a hit and another single, No Air, is "shaping up to be an even bigger record," says Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research.
Others have had less success. Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks and Season 2 champ Ruben Studdard have been dropped by Arista and J Records, two of the labels that take on Idol winners. Season 5 runner-up Katharine McPhee has departed RCA after her debut album sold fewer than 400,000 copies.
At some point, record companies have to cut their losses, Variety music editor Phil Gallo says. Idol's novelty has faded, he says, and "we're reaching the point where they're going to treat people who do well on the show like any other recording artist."
He says the competition should steer clear of quirky singers such as Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken, who hasn't been able to match the sales of his multiplatinum first album. "Because of Clay Aiken they've always said don't judge a book by its cover. But they've wound up with singers really locked into a single style who don't have the varied skills they're looking for" in the record business.
But Idol is still a powerful force in the music industry, Ross says.
"Even 80% of the American Idol effect is plenty to get a record going, enough to get it on radio's docket," he says. "If (Season 5 third-place finisher Elliot Yamin's) Wait For You had walked in without American Idol, on an indie label, it certainly wouldn't have been the hit it was."
Seacrest says slow record sales aren't an indication that Idol winners and finalists are getting weaker, but that they're not making the best musical choices.
"You have to have not only the talent and momentum, you have to have great songs," he says. "Daughtry has hit it big. He's got great songs. There was an appetite for the next Nickelback-type band, that pop-rock band. And that's exactly what he did."
Some Idol alumni are achieving success outside pop music, including Jennifer Hudson (seventh in Season 3), who won the Oscar for best supporting actress last year for her performance in Dreamgirls. Season 3 winner Fantasia has appeared in The Color Purple on Broadway. Last spring's No. 4 finisher, LaKisha Jones, made her debut in Purple recently.
Having the show highlight previous finalists could spark some careers and appeal to the show's dedicated fan base, Lythgoe says. "We'd like to know where other people are. Where is (Season 2's third-place finisher) Kimberley Locke? What is Ruben doing?"
Judging the judges
Cowell says the guys will be the favorites to produce a winner this season; Abdul calls it a toss-up. Both say the younger singers — auditioners range from 16 to 28 — stand out.
"There are a couple of genius-type kids who are musically brilliant," Abdul says.
Fans disagree on whether the judges need to be better this year, too. "I do think the judges mailed it in during Season 6, relative to previous years," Welton says. "Simon needs to be nastier. Paula needs to be nuttier. And Randy needs to invoke more Journey and Mariah Carey name drops."
Fan Eric Phillips, 44, of Gillett, Ark., praises the trio: "You mess with the judges, you mess with what makes American Idol great."
Lythgoe says Idol is well-served by the three bickering judges, who have been with the show from the start. "You speak to anyone about TV judges and it's those three. They've set the benchmark. They're still as childish as ever."
When it is suggested that Cowell occasionally looks bored, Lythgoe responds, "What do you mean, looking bored? He is bored, until a piece of magic comes before him."
Cowell agrees. "Anyone who doesn't get bored in an audition is a liar. Ninety percent (of the singers), I absolutely hate. We're on the hunt to find a new star. At the point I think we've found someone, I'm in a good mood. That's probably three minutes a day," he says, before aiming a dig at "good friend" Abdul. "Paula would sit there 20 hours a day, 365 days a year loving it, because she loves being on TV."
Cowell says he's leaning toward leaving when his contract ends after Season 9, but that he's still excited about doing the show.
"I've yet to see another show which is as good in America," he says. "As long as we retain our energy and enthusiasm for the show, which we have, and we get decent talent to turn up, this could go on for another 20 years."
Contributing: Anthony DeBarros