How American Idol changed television

"American Idol" had the most product placements on TV this year.

Coming Wednesday to your television: the 13th season of American Idol.  Ratings were down last time around, but Fox is promising a facelift for the singing competition.  Love it, or over it, American Idol has changed the way we watch TV.   

At this point, the American Idol format seems pretty unremarkable. We watch some guy that no one’s heard of take on Stevie Wonder; we watch celebs judge him; we vote ourselves.  “Basically American Idol, in my mind, introduces audience interactivity,” says S. Shyam Sundar, a communications professor at Penn State.  It lets us be part of the action. We chose between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard. The show gave all of us a teeny, tiny, bit of control,  “and have a say in the outcome of the proceedings of the show.”

Sundar says it blends old media and new. It sets the stage for more watching together, while we’re in our PJs, watching apart.

But, the show’s format wasn’t entirely revolutionary. American Idol tapped into a long history of entertainment. 

Live. Amateur competition.

“Even in the 50s, and on radio,” says Susan Murray, a media professor at New York University, “there had been amateur hours, popular amateur hour shows.”

American Idol came up with a new formula for telling a story we’ve liked hearing for a long time: that our secret talents could be discovered, that the guy next door could become the next big thing.    

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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I was surprised this segment didn't bring up engagement through Twitter. In this case, it is a benefit of timing, as the reality revolutionaries Real World and Survivor didn't have Twitter available. American Idol was the first reality series I noticed where distributed social watching across Twitter really took off, with hashtag threads and internet debate. I found following Twitter while watching the show added a layer of entertainment above and beyond what the producers had curated. It wasn't until later seasons Idol realized what they had and started promoting involvement on air. Idol was also one of the first shows to really push and garner realtime SMS interaction successfully. Survivor was more online voting, not done in realtime.

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