With news that ABC may be Frankenstein'ing American Idol back to life a mere two years about it left Fox's airwaves after a bidding war with rivals Fox and NBC, it appears that the network is ready to make one last-ditch effort at having a musical competition series viewers actually tune in and watch.
While the Alphabet net has certainly been no slouch in the reality TV department, with Dancing With the Stars and the mega-successful Bachelor franchise propping ABC up just fine over the years, a singing competition with success on par with Idol or The Voice has remained elusive. The Moby Dick to ABC's Captain Ahab, if you will. But it certainly hasn't been for lack of trying.
When American Idol premiered on Fox as a summer replacement in June 2002, it's success surprised everyone—most of all, alternative programming execs at rival networks. While the imitators would begin to pop up quickly, beginning with USA's Nashville Star in 2003 and CBS' Rock Star in 2005, ABC wouldn't make their first stab at singing competition success until 2006 with The One: Making a Music Star.
Adapted from international format Star Academy, The One's promotional material targeted Idol hard, with ABC touting the series as "the show Fox doesn't want you to see" and "where Idol has never gone." Hosted by Canadian broadcaster George Stroumboulopoulos and featuring future Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, the show was a hybrid of Idol and Big Brother, with the contestants living together in a "fully-functioning music academy," having their every move documented. After premiering to, at the time, the lowest ratings for a series premiere in ABC's history and reviews chiding it as derivative and opportunistic, the show was yanked from the schedule after only four episodes and with eight contestants still left in the competition.
Despite that stinging defeat, the network was not ready to throw in the towel. The following year, they would attempt something a bit left-of-center with The Next Best Thing, a competition dedicated to finding the world's greatest celebrity impersonator, of all things. All eight episodes managed to make it to air, but if you don't remember it ever existing, you're certainly not alone. (For the record, an Elvis Presley impersonator beat out another Elvis and a Frank Sinatra to take home the $100,000 prize. Hip.)
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The next summer, attempting to capitalize on corporate synergy and the intense popularity of Disney Channel's High School Musical franchise, ABC's next stab would be High School Musical: Get in the Picture, a singing competition that would award its winner a record contract with Disney and a music video to an original song to be shown during the credits of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, the franchise's leap to the big screen. Despite the built-in audience, the ratings were surprisingly low. Not only did it have to contend with the 2008 Summer Olympics airing on NBC, but the series found itself beat in overall viewers for five consecutive Mondays by Univision telenovela Al Diablo con los Guapos.
President Obama's entire first term in office would go by before ABC would give it another go, but with NBC's The Voice and Fox's The X-Factor both now in the mix with after their successful 2011 launches, the network refused to be left out in the cold. In 2012, they made their highest-profile attempt yet with Duets, which landed John Legend, Robin Thicke, Jennifer Nettles and original Idol winner Kelly Clarkson as mentors searching for the perfect singers to duet with them in front of a live studio audience. And if the music superstar mentor panel sounds like the network was aping the styles of reality TV's popular new kids on the block, that's because they were. Par for the course, the show floundered in the ratings and did not return for a second season, with Thicke even admitting the following year that he found the experience "soulless." You know things are bad when Robin Thicke is trashing you.
The network would take the next summer off to regroup before mounting its last attempt with 2014's Rising Star. Hosted by Josh Groban and adapted from Isreali singing competition HaKokhav HaBa (translation: The Next Star), the series relied on a panel of celebrity experts (Kesha, Ludacris and Brad Paisley) to influence the votes from the viewing audience, who backed their favorites by a specially-made mobile app. With votes tabulated in real-time, rather than over the span of a week until the next episode, Rising Star was nothing if not convoluted. You know, because time zones. Thanks to the confusing format, as well as general singing competition fatigue (The X-Factor had been canceled earlier that year after three seasons, each less successful than the last), Rising Star predictably floundered in the ratings, finishing its first season with only 3.57 million viewers tuning in to see who won. (In the same summer, they would debut Sing Your Face Off, which saw stars like Sebastian Bach and Lisa Rinna perform as Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, respectively—yes, seriously—but the less said about that, the better.)
It would prove, for a time, to be the straw that broke ABC's singing competition-desperate back. "I don't think were going to be trying [another singing show] for a little bit," then-network president Paul Lee told reporters at the Television Critics Association's 2015 winter press tour.
That, of course, brings us around to now, with a new network president (Channing Dungey, who replaced Lee in 2016) and reports that ABC's plans to revive American Idol for a March 2018 premiere are basically a done deal. (ABC had no comment.) If the multiple stories prove to be true—and in this industry, where there's plenty of smoke, there's usually always fire— and ABC does make the big announcement at their Upfront presentation in New York City next week, this may well be the network's last chance to ever have a hit singing competition. After all, if they can't make the gold standard brand work, why would they think they stand a chance with anything else?
But the bigger question here is: Why? After all that they've been through, and with the genre on the steady decline overall, why would ABC still be so desperate to make this work? And what makes them think that a show that's already been canceled—and might not even have Ryan Seacrest as its face, despite his new relationship with ABC—is something that audiences are clamoring for?
ABC's road to American Idol has been a torturous one, littered with the corpses of long-forgotten shows and the memory of the billions of dollars spent on a genre its audience just doesn't seem to want from it. Will this finally be their moment in the spotlight? We're not convinced. But as they say, it's never truly over until the fat lady sings.
Do you think ABC can make an American Idol revival work? Sound off in the comments below!