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'American Idol' Nears The End Of Its Long Lifespan


America chose its first "American Idol" winner way back in the fall of 2002, and here's a spoiler alert.


RYAN SEACREST: The winner of American Idol 2002 is Kelly Clarkson.

MARTIN: But Fox has announced that this 15th season of "American Idol" premiering Wednesday will also be its last. Show has had some big hits, including Clarkson, and some misses. Anyone know what happened to season 10 winner Scott McCreery? Here to talk about the show's legacy is NPR's pop culture writer Linda Holmes. Hey, Linda.


MARTIN: OK. Why now? I mean, the audience is still relatively strong, no?

HOLMES: It's strong, but it's faded quite a bit from the peak. You know, in about the second half of these 15 seasons, they started to mess around with the judging panel. And the audience started to fall off and has fallen off kind of steadily over the last particularly, I would say, four to five years. So most shows like this have a natural lifespan, and this one had a very long lifespan, but it reached the end of the road, I think.

MARTIN: OK. Let's talk about why it was so good for so long because there have been talent shows on TV for a really long time. I grew up with "Star Search."

HOLMES: Right.

MARTIN: I was obsessed. I'm also a big "Idol" fan. I watch other iterations of this kind of entertainment.

HOLMES: Right.

MARTIN: But what made "Idol" so unique?

HOLMES: Well, they had really not been doing a lot of talent shows for quite a while. As you said, in the '80s, they had "Star Search." Before that, you had, like, "The Gong Show." But the idea of real shows that were really intended to find people who would then be famous was something they weren't really doing. And I think it was the mix of bad auditions and good auditions. People got very addicted very quickly to being able to laugh at goofy people and then also being able to appreciate talented people.

MARTIN: Because it was the first time that we saw additions, right? Like, that was something that was new for a talent show.

HOLMES: Right.

MARTIN: It wasn't just the performance and the very polished, you know, stage act. We got to see behind the scenes when they were trying to make it.

HOLMES: Right. If you watch something like "Star Search," the only people who you were going to see on the show were the people who the show was putting forward as - they're good. "Idol" introduced an element of people who were terrible. And one of the things that started to interfere with the chemistry of the show for a lot of people who watched it was when those bad auditions began to get so bad and so uncomfortable to watch.


HOLMES: And you started also to get people who you knew were just there to be a bad auditioner and get on television.

MARTIN: Can we talk about...


MARTIN: ...What's-his-name?

HOLMES: I think you're thinking of William Hung.

MARTIN: Yes, I am. I can't believe I forgot his name.

HOLMES: Who did - who sand "She Bangs" on the show.


HOLMES: There were a lot - I mean, a lot of those bad auditioners who made people so uncomfortable - you know, if they didn't speak good English or if they seemed to be genuinely kind of troubled...

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah.

HOLMES: ...You know, you really started to feel...

MARTIN: A little cringey (ph).

HOLMES: ...Like this was something you should not be doing, as opposed to just people who weren't good enough.

MARTIN: I feel obliged to just note that there were some really big names who were discovered through this show, right? I mean, there are critics out there who say reality TV - you know, all of this is so contrived and orchestrated. Kelly Clarkson we mentioned. Carrie Underwood, one of the biggest stars in country music and pop music, for that matter, Jennifer Hudson...

HOLMES: Yes. A number people who have gone on to be on Broadway - Fantasia Barrino...

MARTIN: Fantasia.

HOLMES: Constantine Maroulis, a middle finisher, and who's in "Rock Of Ages" and nominated for a Tony.

MARTIN: Oh, really? I didn't know that.

HOLMES: I think when people watched him on "Idol," they were not necessarily like that looks like a future Tony nominee, but there he was, right? And then you just have a lot of these people who aren't necessarily gigantic stars, but they work. They still work. They make records. They perform live. And some of them are still people who just operate on this huge well of goodwill toward them. People like Clay Aiken, who still can go out and get fans anywhere and ran for Congress and was on "Celebrity Apprentice," and he'll never go away.

MARTIN: So much of this show's success had to do with the judges, right? Like, in the beginning we had the curmudgeon Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul and...

HOLMES: Whatever Randy Jackson was.

MARTIN: Randy - whatever he was in that moment.

HOLMES: Right.

MARTIN: This panel - we've got Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr., and Keith Urban. What do you like about them?

HOLMES: They are a pretty laid back panel, and they avoid overreacting to people. It's a panel that I really think has a nice, even quality. They don't get too out of hand. They don't yell at people.

MARTIN: They seem like they take it seriously.

HOLMES: They do.

MARTIN: They're genuinely trying to help these people.

HOLMES: And unlike anybody who was on that original panel, Harry Connick, Jr., gives a lot of substantive musical criticism that you can actually follow from a musical theory and musical execution perspective, which is something that was really lacking from those early seasons, I would argue.

MARTIN: NPR pop culture writer and the host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Linda Holmes. Thanks so much, Linda.

HOLMES: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: A lot changed on "American Idol" over the years.


SEACREST: Hi. I'm Ryan Seacrest.

BRIAN DUNKLEMAN: And I'm Brian Dunkleman.

MARTIN: Brian Dunkleman didn't stick around to co-host past the very first season, while Ryan Seacrest went on to become a veritable institution.


SEACREST: The winner of "American Idol 2003"...



Season 11...



MARTIN: Also unforgettable - those so-bad-they're-great auditions.

WILIAM HUNG: (Singing) She bangs. She bangs. Oh, baby. She moves. She moves.

MARTIN: And the little bits of crazy from the judging panel, whether from Paula Abdul or Steven Tyler.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The rock legend decided to take off his shirt and pants.

MARTIN: And every year, there was always a ballad or two that just stopped us in our tracks.


CLAY AIKEN: (Singing) Like a bridge over troubled water...

MARTIN: Because, yes, this is just a TV show designed explicitly to get ratings and to make money, but it was also a place where an amateur singer with a dream, like Clay Aiken, could take the stage in front of millions of people and sing like nothing else mattered.

AIKEN: (Singing) ...Ease your mind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.