Reality television, a staple of the American entertainment diet for two decades, is indisputably in decline. But it’s not dead—far from it. And it may turn out to be indestructible.
ABC announced today that it will reboot the legendary reality singing competition American Idol, just a year after its original network, Fox, took the show off the air. Launched in 2002, Idol became a global phenomenon and a ratings juggernaut, averaging more than 30 million viewers per episode in its heyday. But like many other unscripted series, its ratings declined sharply in recent years, and in 2016 Fox decided to pull the plug.
But even at its low point, American Idol was hugely popular. And it was never going to stay dead for long. The show’s lowest rated season would still be ABC’s second highest rated program today, behind only another reality show, The Bachelor, as TVLine editor Matt Mitovich pointed out.
After Fox decided not to renew the show last year, NBC, home to the singing competition The Voice, was said to be interested, but ultimately passed. ABC, long without a singing show in its lineup, then became the frontrunner to land Idol, and closed on a deal with the production company FremantleMedia this week. ABC withstood a “last-second” bid by Fox, whose executives had apparently changed their minds on the show they canned a year prior, according to Variety.
The desperation is somewhat surprising, given the decline of reality TV across both broadcast and cable. The reasons for its downfall are plentiful: Networks must now contend with the explosion of scripted dramatic programs (which have second lives on-demand, something live competition shows generally do not). Broadcast executives, many of whom have more experience developing scripted than unscripted shows, have struggled to find original ideas for reality programming. And in the age of cord-cutting, scripted shows are what build TV brands and keep channels in increasingly smaller cable bundles.
Most of all, though, audiences just grew tired of the competition reality show genre. Networks began relying too heavily on gimmicky premises and copycat formulae. For every singing, dancing, or dating competition, there were several more identical ones on competing networks.
ABC knows it must figure out a way to reinvent American Idol so that it appeals to a newer, younger generation of viewers. The trick is that it needs to do so while also allowing the show to feel familiar to its many millions of original fans. The balancing act will be difficult, but ABC clearly believes a rebooted Idol is well worth the risk.
After all, the biggest trend in TV right now is the reboot. Networks have become obsessed with reviving old, beloved series, as well as pretty much anything that’s part of a recognizable film franchise. It was only a matter of time before they started rebooting famous reality TV franchises too.
As stale as Idol became in its later years, it was known for its ability to create bona fide pop stars, while copycat shows such as NBC’s The Voice struggled to make household names out of their contestants. (At times, The Voice has felt more like a showcase for its rotating team of famous judges than a competition meant to shine a spotlight on unknowns.)
Idol will never be what it once was—that much is obvious. And reality TV might only live on as a shadow of its former self. But it’s still a hugely important part of the TV industry, and one that will likely be with us forever. We can’t ever quit reality TV, and the networks know it.