It started on June 11, 2002, with a couple of unfamiliar hosts posing in an empty theater and making an overblown declaration to TV viewers.
“Live on this stage, an unknown talent will be launched into superstardom,” said Brian Dunkleman.
“ You at home decide who will become the next American idol,” intoned Ryan Seacrest.
The reasonable reaction: uh-huh, sure. But it turned out the two were underselling Fox’s “American Idol.”
The singing contest, which begins its 15th and fi- nal season tonight (Wednesday), was a blockbuster that invigorated its network. It made stars of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and others, and resurrected the TV talent show as a boom industry that includes NBC’s “The Voice” and ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
“It not only was a huge success for Fox but impacted everyone else,” said Bill Carroll, media analyst with Katz Television Group. “It once again underscored the fact that broadcast television is communal and an event.”
“American Idol,” from megaproducer Simon Fuller and based on his British hit “Pop Idol,” did even more. It breathed life into the music industry as it and network TV both grappled with technology driven changes in consumer habits.
The show’s end is the result of dwindling ratings, the inevitable fate of even durable performers. “Idol,” which averaged more than 30 million weekly viewers at its 2006 peak and ranked No. 1 for nine consecutive years, averaged about 11 million last season (still enough by today’s standards to land it in the top 20, but with fewer advertiser-favored younger viewers).
Whatever its change in fortunes, the series will get a send-off worthy of a television landmark, said executive producer Trish Kihane.
As she sees it, that means paying tribute to its past while focusing on the battle among this year’s contestants to become the last “Idol” winner.
“It’s that tricky thing of, ‘Hey, it’s the 15th season, let’s do nostalgia, let’s look back at the show’s really rich history,’” Kihane said. “But on the other hand, you’ve got to find an amazing American Idol. So we’re trying to combine both of those things.”
To accomplish that “organically,” she said, past winners and familiar runners up will be sprinkled throughout the season, starting with the open auditions in which Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Taylor Hicks and others were on hand to share tips with the hopefuls.
Plans also call for duets pairing contestants with their now-famous predecessors, who “all want to be involved, somehow,” Kihane said.
A famous non- Idol, Kanye West, made a surprise appearance at the judges’ auditions in San Francisco in September, with wife Kim Kardashian West along as his cheerleader. His “tryout” is included in Wednesday’s episode.
The season debut is a four-hour, two-night affair, airing from 8-10 p.m. EST Wednesday and Thursday and opening on a retrospective note with the Seacrest- Dunkleman ‘02 clip.
One contestant featured in the premiere demonstrates the show’s impressive hold on its fans. Michelle Marie Lecza of Daytona Beach, Florida, recalls watching it as a 4-year-old and can recite all of the winners, in order.
“’American Idol’ is what I based my life off of. I am going to walk into the audition room and go get my dream,” the braces-wearing 15-year-old says.