'American Idol' 2014 year in review: better judges' panel, fading relevance

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

By RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com, filed December 25, 2014

After a disastrous "American Idol' season 12 in 2013, the producers and new judges' panel managed to put together a significantly better season 13 crew. Unfortunately, those changes couldn't stop a free fall in ratings and relevance.

I've been following "Idol" since the very beginning in June of 2002. The rise and fall of what was once pop culture's most talked-about show has been humbling - but inevitable, too.

At this point, "Idol" would be hard-pressed to draw many new viewers as older ones continue to move on to shinier and fresher shows. Fox is trimming costs as ad revenues fall of commensurately. The biggest move: eliminating results shows for 2015.

Here are some of the top stories of 2014 from the land of "Idol."

The right trio: After several years where "Idol" struggled to find the right judges' panel, producers finally found the proper chemistry with Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. Urban brought musical savvy and a cool personality, Lopez provided an interesting combo of nurturer and sexpot and Connick played the quirky savant. Not a Simon Cowell in this bunch - and thank goodness, no Mariah Carey/Nikki Minaj nonsense. Luckily, "Idol" was able to keep them all for season 14, which returns January 7. And loyal Ryan Seacrest remains the host, the glue of the show all these years.

Where did everyone go? Despite the revamped judges' panel, ratings fell another 30 percent for "Idol," the worst single-year drop off in the show's history. Its viewership among 18 to 49 year olds fell below that of season one, when "Idol" was an experimental summer show. Repeats of "The Big Bang Theory" pulled in bigger ratings. "The Walking Dead" more than doubled "Idol" among younger viewers. "The Voice" eclipsed "Idol" in viewers of all stripes. The average age of the viewer increased from 32 season one to 53 last year. Every which way you cut it for "Idol" loyalists, it was downright depressing. Some weeks, fewer than 9 million people were watching the performance shows. Even counting DVR usage, ratings were barely a third of what they were at the show's peak in 2006.

Will anyone remember season 13's finalists? And while there was definitely some talent among the top 10 this year, many of the singers were limited in terms of stage charisma (Sam Woolf anyone?) and didn't improve enough to evoke real "star" power. One exception: runner up Jenna Irene has the most realistic shot at stardom given her pop leanings. Even then, none of the finalists became household names outside of core fans because nobody outside that world talks about "Idol" anymore. In the past, "Idol" was a standard topic of conversation on morning radio and social media. Not anymore.

Caleb... who? Caleb Johnson, the man who actually won, drew upon his 1970s classic rock leanings to draw in the older voters but his commercial appeal was limited. And in a sign of how little impact "Idol" has nowadays, his knack of insensitive and politically incorrect remarks, including use of the word "retard" toward his fans barely registered. If he had been part of season five's crew, his comments would have landed him on the cover of People magazine and lead story of Entertainment Tonight. Instead, I think maybe five publications mentioned it at all (including me.)

Jackson out... With Randy Jackson off the judges' panel, the producers made the ill-fated decision to keep him around. No, not as craft services director or a seat warmer. No. They decided to make him a mentor to the contestants. Unlike his predecessor Jimmy Iovine, a real record executive with real opinions who created real stars, Jackson is a record producer and former bassist for Journey. He has shown us over the years on the judges' panel that he's prone to catchphrases and genial, banal commentary but not much else. And as a mentor, he was no different, possibly even duller. So "Idol" wisely let him go after season 13. We love you dawg but your time has past.

Most tragic death: Michael Johns, a season 7 contestant who lived in Buckhead from 1998 to 2002, died In August under murky circumstances. The family wasn't upfront about what they thought was the cause of death at first (was it a blood clot?) and friends offered different theories related to his drinking issues. The coroner in November said he died of an enlarged heart with a fatty liver as a contributing factor. Sadly, he is the first "American Idol" finalist to die.

Congressman... Aiken? In a most unlikely twist, Clay Aiken, the cute, butter-smooth vocalist from season two who came in second to Ruben Studdard, ran for Congress this year as a Democrat in a largely Republican district of North Carolina, He barely beat his Democratic opponent in the primary, who awkwardly died six days later. He chases after Renee Ellmers, the incumbent, with maturity and gusto and garnered national press but his chase was ultimately hopeless. As a gay man with no political experience, he fought an uphill battle and pulled in 41.2 percent of the vote, losing to Ellmers by 17 percentage points. Esquire is going to air a docu-series about his quixotic pursuit early next year.

Baby bound! Two of the most popular "Idol" winners Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson were pregnant this year. Clarkson had her first child, daughter River Rose, in June. Underwood is pregnant and due in 2015.

Cover me: While Georgia resident Bo Bice is fronting Blood, Sweat & Tears, Adam Lambert toured as lead singer of Queen. And Constantine Maroulis returned to Broadway to be the lead in "Rock of Ages."

Taking God's path: Danny Gokey had his first No. 1 hit "Hope In Front of Me" on the Christian chart. Colton Dixon had his second top 10 hit with "More of You."

Coke was it: Atlanta-based Coca Cola dropped its sponsorship of the show earlier this month after 13 seasons.

Break ups: The biggest "Idol"-related break up was Jordin Sparks' three-year relationship with singer Jason DeRulo. She even sang a diss song against him, which seems not at all characteristic of Sparks.

The 'Big Bang' drama theory: CBS's "Scorpion," which is kind of like the dramatic version of "The Big Bang Theory" group, features season 5 runner up Katharine McPhee as Paige, the "normal" person and single mom with a genius son who can help the smarties navigate life as they work with Homeland Security to deal with crises near and far. The show is pulling in solid ratings and is virtually guaranteed a second season at this stage. This is McPhee's second big TV role after "Smash," which fizzled after two seasons on NBC. Katie Stevens, another "Idol" finalist, found a prominent TV acting gig on MTV's 'Faking It."

My best 'Idol' interview of the year: Kellie Picker is always a delight to talk to. She was in town in the fall to help open the new Avalon mixed use development in Alpharetta. She clearly doesn't mind speaking to media and will answer any question honestly and forthrightly. (Here's the interview from October.) I also enjoyed talks with Phillip Phillips, Chris Daughtry, Jena Irene and Taylor Hicks, all of whom have performed in metro Atlanta this year.

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