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'American Idol' Ratings Plummet: Have Singing Shows Run Their Course?

"There have just been a ton of shows, and something has simply gone awry," Simon Cowell says

May 12, 2014 3:15 PM ET
American Idol
American Idol XIII
FOX via Getty Images

The era of the TV-bred singing star may have come and gone. The glut of American Idol–type shows that have filled television schedules over the past decade, and even dramatic series like Glee and Smash, are reaping dire ratings, according to The New York Times. The most recent episode of American Idol attracted an all-time low number of viewers – seven million, compared to 30 million at its height – and the median age of viewers has drifted in the wrong direction, from 32 to 52. Shows including The Voice and Glee have also experienced similar trends.

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"[These types of shows] have flooded the market," Simon Cowell told the Times. "There have just been a ton of shows, and something has simply gone awry."

American Idol's decline in popularity stretches back years. In the past two alone, its ratings have dropped by 30 percent. An industry insider said that the show, which has generated an estimated $3 billion in profit for Fox, was most likely offering "make-right" free commercials to advertisers to compensate for poor ratings. On the road, the news isn't any better. The American Idol live tour is also drawing a smaller audience.

Cowell's The X Factor was collateral damage and canceled in 2013 when Fox execs figured it was diluting the success of American Idol. And, along with the overall decline in ratings for these types of shows, Dancing With the Stars was half-canceled, relegating its programming to only one night a week; moreover its median viewer is now over age 62. And similarly, NBC's Smash was canceled after two seasons; Nashville is not a ratings winner (and ABC execs delayed renewing the series until almost the last minute); and the producers of Glee have seen their stake in the most coveted 18–49 demographic drop from a six rating to a one.

The Voice, which is the strongest performer among the shows, reached a new ratings low itself last week. The Times ventures that part of its low ratings is due to the fact that it runs in two cycles a year. But beyond that Cowell questioned the efficacy of the show and the ability it has to break stars. "Who does better? The Voice judges or the Voice contestants?" he asked. "It's quite obvious the judges have sold a ton more records."

Cowell also had mordant words for the show that made his acerbic criticism famous. "The awful stat is in stars created by these shows," he said. "The last true breakout artist we had was Carrie Underwood on Idol. That was eight years ago."

A production exec who asked to speak off the record told the Times that record companies have moved past the notion that they could break artists from these shows. Nevertheless, ABC is launching a new competition show, Rising Star, as well as a "musical comedy fairytale" called Galavant that will use original music from Disney composer Alan Menken.

Currently, the company that produces American Idol is negotiating whether or not the show would drop its low-rated results shows. "We're in the middle of discussions with Fox," an exec said. "We want to protect the franchise. Fox wants to use Idol to launch other things."

Despite its uncertain future, Cowell said he was working a surprise new show that would be announced this week. 

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