As the Lights Dim on 'American Idol,' One Superfan Says Goodbye

After the Final Finale: 15-Year Journey for TV Phenomenon Comes to an End

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One judges' panel among several along the show's, um, 'journey.'
One judges' panel among several along the show's, um, 'journey.'
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Today I had to change my Twitter handle. Since 2009 it's read "'American Idol' voyeur." This week ended a 15-year run for a TV show that became part of the popular culture and touched many of us personally. I'm sad to see it go, but I was glad the producers gave it the sendoff it deserved -- and it was pretty much just as predicted in this column below that I wrote months ago. Right down to celebrating those white guys with guitars. Goodbye, Idol. It was one helluva journey.

Call in the therapists: They're canceling "American Idol."

Now that Fox's once-highflying talent competition is coming to a creaky close, I can come clean and admit that I am one of those nine million still watching. In fact, I have devoured every episode since season two (so I missed one -- nobody's perfect), and even though this superfan has long seen it coming, the final blow was still a stunner.

In fact, I got a condolence note from a colleague.

While sent jocularly, that email recognized how I and millions of people felt, and many of us still feel, while under the spell of "Idol": like a family. You get invested in the contestants -- these young kids who could be your son, your neighbor, your friend -- as they are plucked from obscurity and steered into stardom. Along the way, they are coached on everything from how to choose the right song, avoid the pitchy note and stare through the camera for maximum effect. You get sucked into what's called, in nauseating "Idol"-speak, "the journey." You get to know their personalities, their stories, their families, their lives. You follow them online, interact with them on Facebook and Twitter.

You laugh at me now. But back in 2007, you were all watching with me. Audiences were totaling around 30 million viewers and Ad Age valued the franchise at $2.5 billion. Some 137 advertisers jockeyed for ad time in a property so hot that viewers cast 570 million votes and sent 65 million text messages (only about a million of them by me). In addition to $500 million a year in TV ad dollars, including a number of sponsorships at $30 million to $50 million each, there were live tours, "Idol" ice cream, Monopoly games and chocolate bars. "Idol" showed marketers what "engagement" could look like.

And then, of course, there was the music. Back in that heady year of 2007, Nielsen said "Idol"-related titles represented 2.1% of all album sales. The show introduced us to some legitimately amazing talent—and not just the consistent chart-busters like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. I have an entire playlist dedicated to every performance and beyond of season-seven sensation David Cook (but that's another column and another therapist).

So how much of an "American Idol" superfan am I?

Well, I actually lined up to get my picture taken with season 10's James Durbin at the Fox upfront (Google him). And this jaded journalist, who has been hugged by Oprah Winfrey and has lunched at Martha Stewart's house, jumped a plane to California solely to watch—from the fourth-to-last row in the uppermost balcony—Candice Glover crowned winner of the 12th season.

At least I think it was her; it was kind of a teeny speck in a sequined dress.

And to think it's now all come to this: A snigger and a single clap at the Fox upfront last week when executives acknowledged that "Idol" would be laid to rest.

I've still got one last season. Fox, you'd better make it a good one, a big old family reunion without the potato salad, matching T-shirts and sack races. Bring back my acerbic pal Simon Cowell, my ditsy Paula Abdul and my batshit-crazy Steven Tyler even if they're not in judges' chairs. And cram it with musical mega stars, those pleasing oddball duets and lots of white guys with guitars.

Still, I'm worried about what happens after that. How will I know it's Memorial Day if not for the finale? How will I live without the sweet sadism of Hollywood Week, when contestants are forced into inharmonious groups? What will I do when I no longer have to break the land-speed barrier racing home on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (often print deadline days here at Ad Age) to watch live? With Idol, the DVR just doesn't cut it. You can't tweet after the fact. It also means I will have to change my very identity: My Twitter description for almost a decade has defined me as an "American Idol voyeur."

Will I be forced into the ignominity of watching "Dancing With the Stars" or "Duck Dynasty?"

The saddest part of all is that Idol's demise is partly my fault -- I've slipped past that magical demographic number. (Don't make me say it, you know what it is.) Because I and my viewing cohort are now only suitable targets for ads for Life Alerts, reverse mortgages and step-in bathtubs, we have collectively dragged down "Idol." [Exclude Lookbook Directory]

So I will be eagerly watching this season's final showdown between Clark Beckham and Nick Fradiani. And I will watch the one after that. But come 2017, I will be forced into another obsession.

"Property Brothers," consider yourselves warned.

Judann Pollack is deputy editor at Ad Age