‘American Idol': The Final Chorus

Thursday's series finale marks the end of a TV phenomenon whose high – and low – notes will resound in the pop culture consciousness

Simon Cowell, during an "American Idol" retrospective this week, explained the caustic approach that once made him the most hated man on television: "I feel I was doing a service to people by saying to someone, 'You can't sing, so go and do something that you're good at.'"

Here's the blunt truth about what "American Idol" was best at: It wasn't a singing competition as much as a balancing act. When the emphasis titled toward the singers, the Fox juggernaut soared like no other program this century. When the focus turned to the judges' on-and off-stage bickering, "Idol" faltered.

As the onetime phenomenon caps its 15th season and says goodbye with a grand finale Thursday featuring special guests and the battle between 2016 finalists Trent Harmon, La'Porsha Renae and Dalton Rapattoni for the final "Idol" crown, the spotlight is exactly where it belongs: on the legacy of a show that gave television perhaps its last weekly mass-and-multigenerational audience hit.

"Idol," as Tuesday's special reminded viewers, arrived with little fanfare in the summer of 2002, offering the musical equivalent of familial comfort food in the wake of 9/11.

The show presaged the growth of audience engaging — and empowering — social media with its voting system (first by phone, then by texting, with host Ryan Seacrest giving button-pressing lessons on air). The program, with its constant stream of youngsters singing hits of years past, helped feed the iTunes-driven, on-demand approach to music sales. "Idol" made Cowell and Randy Jackson household names, and raised kind-hearted Paula Abdul to new heights of celebrity.

But none of that would have mattered much without the talent that passed through the auditions to the Hollywood stage, especially in the early seasons. Winning the competition turned Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks into instant stars. Jennifer Hudson, the greatest "Idol" contestant of all, somehow didn't make it past the top six in Season 3.

"Idol" lost its balance along the way, amid a revolving lineup of judges and singers who, at times, seemed cookie cutter. The cruel juxtaposition of strong early auditions with the William Hung-level awful grew tiresome. So did the contestant backstories, which once helped build the drama and enhance the sense of a performer transforming before your eyes, but eventually became repetitive.

Times changed, with an “Idol”-inspired onslaught of talent shows and a general fragmentation of TV audiences amid the Internet explosion. More than 36 million people tuned in to see Taylor Hicks win in 2006. Last year’s Season 14 finale drew 7.7 million.

Cowell offered another truth about "Idol" during Tuesday's special, suggesting the program's greatest key to success rested with neither the judges nor the wannabe superstars: The program, he said, "showed the TV industry you can trust your audience."

Thursday's finale seems primed to draw a crowd — if not for the judges and singers past and present, then for a show that, at its best, hit high notes destined to resound in the pop cultural consciousness far beyond the final song.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter. 

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