Television

'American Idol': The 'Scarecrow & Mrs. King' of Our Time?

'American Idol finale

Not only is it not particularly big for a dumb show, it's not particularly dumb for a big show. Fox hide caption

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Forget the hype. Ratings-wise, American Idol is a jugger-not.

Here's why I say that: With reports now pouring in from the latest round of Idol auditions around the country, it's only a matter of time before media critics head back to their thesauruses to find words to express just how culturally dominant this show really is.

The problem: It isn't, really.

American Idol, at its most popular, was watched by roughly the same percentage of television households as were watching Scarecrow & Mrs. King in 1986.

Hard to believe? The proof, after the jump.

In case you have completely forgotten Scarecrow & Mrs. King, which you probably have, it was a spy show in which Bruce Boxleitner and Kate Jackson played a federal agent and a housewife who got into all kinds of scrapes with poison darts and killers posing as cooking-show hosts (really!) and all that good late-Cold War Russian-accented espionage business.

In its highest-rated season (the spring of 2006), American Idol averaged a household rating of 17.6. This means that 17.6 percent of television-owning households were watching. In the 1986-1987 season, Scarecrow managed a 17.4.

So among people who own a TV, your odds that a household was tuned in to American Idol at the absolute peak of its alleged death grip on the national consciousness were about the same as your odds that a 1986 household was watching a show on which, once upon a time, "Lee and Amanda pose[d] as prospective buyers of a fast-food franchise to catch those responsible for poisoning a batch of hamburger sauce."

Lest you conclude that this is because more people lived television-free in 1986 (which would mean the same percentage of TV households was a smaller percentage of the overall population), it doesn't look that way: The ratio of television households to total households has been nearly stable since then.

"But it's the young people! Young people drive culture, and American Idol is the obsession of the young people!"

Not really. According to Nielsen Media Research, 62 percent of the Idol audience is between 35 and 64. Only 15 percent is under 18. (According to the U.S. Census, 24.6 percent of the U.S. population was under 18 in 2006.)

So Idol is not driven by its disproportionate appeal to teenagers. As a matter of fact, 11 percent of the audience is 65 or older, compared to 12.4 percent of the total population, meaning your chances of picking a senior citizen out of the Idol audience are about the same as your chances of picking one off the street.

It's not that Idol isn't huge, particularly from a business perspective. The thing is a towering behemoth if you compare it to other individual shows. Nothing else this season even came close to it.

Whatever the relatively puny cultural penetration of Idol, everything else is even ... well, punier, mostly owing to the scattering of viewers from networks to cable. That makes it, quite logically, the envy of everybody.

But if you look at culture rather than at business, the show just isn't that mighty. Throughout its entire history, at least 82 percent of TV households have abstained.

And despite all the talk you'll frequently hear about what the success of Idol means about us, not only is it not particularly big for a dumb show, it's not particularly dumb for a big show.

In the 1979-1980 season, 26.3 percent of TV households watched Three's Company. Not dumb enough for you? How about the 24.1 percent that watched The Dukes Of Hazzard?

The next season, 1980-1981, 34.5 percent — more than a third of everybody who owned a TV, and twice the percentage that has ever routinely watched Idol — watched Dallas.

That same year, 24.3 percent watched The Love Boat. That's one-quarter of TV owners. And that's Charo. What were you thinking, viewers of 1980?

Disclaimer: I like plenty of dumb television. I'm just saying, it's important not to long for a past of pervasive good taste that simply never was.

So yes, Idol is crass and silly, and yes, the audition weeks go on far, far too long. And yes, I watch it and unashamedly enjoy it, despite my list of grievances.

As for those out there who spend a lot of time gnashing their teeth and asking why everyone else loves the melismatic caterwauling of rank amateurs — and whether the rise of American Idol means we're sinking feet-first into a cultural tar pit from which we will one day be extracted as brittle fossils — it's worth remembering: (1) everyone doesn't, and (2) we've liked worse.

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The percentage ratings are not percentage of tv owners: it is the percentage of tv viewers at that time. So, while 17.4% of TV viewers watched the Scarecrow and Mrs. King outwit those wily hamburger sauce villains, it still might be 17.4% of a smaller number if people in general watched less tv.

I think that for general cultural influence, you would need to look at the raw number of viewers vs. the total population.

Sent by Jonathan | 5:58 PM | 8-25-2008

The ratings points listed here are, indeed, percentages of all TV-owning households, not TV viewers at the time.

I believe you're thinking of share points, which are the percentage of everyone watching TV at that time. Two different numbers. You'll usually see ratings expressed as points/share, like 17.3/33, which would be 17.3 percent of all TV households, and 33 percent of those with the set on at the time.

It's really confusing, but Nielsen explains it here: http://www.nielsenmedia.com/FAQ/ratings.html

Sent by Linda Holmes | 6:26 PM | 8-25-2008

American Idol! How about American Karaoke. It's pretty sad when the champions of the show couldn't even win a karaoke contest at the local Holiday Inn! Mediocre karaoke singers are not idols. It's so typical of modern american culture where people are famous for being famous not because of their talents (Paris Hilton and all the other lame reality show "stars").

Sent by Greg Larson | 6:57 PM | 8-25-2008

AI gets giant ratings compared to what's on opposite it, which makes it seem a lot bigger than it is. With the number of available channels these days, it's amazing a show can win a time slot so handily.

(BTW, re: "In case you have completely forgotten Scarecrow & Mrs. King, which you probably have..." Ha! See www.smkanniversary.com and all the websites for it!)

Sent by Kini S | 7:41 PM | 8-25-2008

This is a good point, but how many channels did most people have in 1986? Also, how many people had alternate ways of watching TV like tivo and itunes and...less legal ways of watching? Isn't it more that Idol stands out because it is the only show getting the kinds of ratings that were typical for network shows 20 years ago?

Sent by Brenda | 8:02 PM | 8-25-2008

"how many channels did most people have in 1986?"

Oh, absolutely, you're 100 percent right on; the issue is fragmentation of the viewing audience over time.

Totally right -- compare it to each other individual show, and it's enormous. But compare it to (if you'll excuse me) the universe, and it's being not-watched by the vast majority of the country -- much more than, say, 'Dallas' was being not-watched by.

If that, er, makes sense.

Sent by Linda Holmes | 8:41 PM | 8-25-2008

Also, back in the 70s and 80s, virtually the only screen-type entertainment was TV. Now we have the internet, console games, computer games and such. Just aren't as many people watching TV as there used to be, which is why Idol's numbers are big compared to its TV competition.

Sent by Jean | 10:01 PM | 8-25-2008

Junk is junk. One has only to look at the success of Howard Stearn (albeit faded), McDonald's and Walmart to realize that popularity, unfortunately, does not equal quality. Our national obsession with the worst in people- eg. Survivor, Bachelor, Idol, hell, all of the reality junk, is a national embarrassment. To listen to individuals attempt to rationalize their motivation to digest this garbage is no less pathetic.
Welcome to the tar pits, people.

Sent by Michael | 10:23 PM | 8-25-2008

The most unsettling part of all this is the feeling that your slamming my beloved Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

Sent by Ryan | 10:35 PM | 8-25-2008

Hey, an obsession with the "worst in people" is hardly specific to America. Quite frankly, we're quite prudish compared to other tasteless audiences in history, who would happily cheer plays where the major plot points were a man with a giant fake penis running around chasing women.

Sent by Katie | 10:39 PM | 8-25-2008

Are you kidding me? How do you think I knew about the cooking-show host?

My sister and I loved that show.

Sent by Linda Holmes | 10:40 PM | 8-25-2008

Ughh, so many horrible shows mentioned in the same article. I feel the need to be decontaminated.

Sent by Brad | 2:03 AM | 8-26-2008

One of the great mysteries of our time is why Scarecrow and Mrs. King is not available on DVD. (not that I'm bitter or anything)

Sent by Karen Hammond | 4:13 AM | 8-26-2008

Look at the numbers theonly ones who really seem to "make it" off American Idol are Simon Cowell and the producers.

Sent by liz | 5:48 AM | 8-26-2008

Number one is number one. Scarecrow and Mrs King, with all due respect, never pulled in 27 million viewers. Not even once.

Sent by Zak | 7:49 AM | 8-26-2008

The article although logically written is not valid due to as others have mentioned different media that is available 20 years later. American Idol is relevant. Just look at your music and radio charts. The artists from Idol are everywhere. What about youtube? Many people actually watch AI there. Many AI clips have millions of views. Nobody remembers Scarecrow and Mrs. King now, but I think some of the stars that AI is discovering will still be around making music in 20 years.

Nice way to try to minimize the #1 show, but you need to get better points to back it up. Your math is funky and just doesn't work. Sorry.

Sent by Amy | 9:48 AM | 8-26-2008

"and whether the rise of American Idol means we're sinking feet-first into a cultural tar pit from which we will one day be extracted as brittle fossils"

That was funny, Linda!

Sent by LK | 10:02 AM | 8-26-2008

I'm sorry, but you are comparing apples and oranges. I remember Scarecrow - loved it actually. But at the time, my choices for that hour were limited to 5 channels (I think we had FOX by then.) There was no internet - limited cable (which my family along with many others did not have), and certainly no netflix or kindle.

Sent by LA | 10:50 AM | 8-26-2008

Actually, these awful reality shows come to us from abroad and classed-up for American viewers. The truth is it's meaningless because commercial television, by definition, is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator in our culture, as it was always just a (supposedly) pleasant distraction until death comes knocking. The "winners" of these shows are soon forgotten, just as the shows themselves will be.

Sent by Brian | 11:38 AM | 8-26-2008

"...it's important not to long for a past of pervasive good taste that simply never was."

I'm sorry -- who is doing this longing, this claiming or defining? It's not illustrated or implied that anyone is doing such, but then you tell us it's important not to. This angle of emphasis on the relativity and long reliability of the medium's stink generation don't seem to be tethered to nuthin'.

Also, since you do put emphasis on separating business/ratings impact from cultural impact, I have to say the cultural and popular weight, even, yes, dominance of Idol actually is big, undeniable and strange. I've never watched the show, but what's unavoidable is hearing A LOT about it and its contenders and its controversies in my general media exposure and personal conversations.

Numbers, shmumbers -- few shows ever achieve the same size footprint of attention as AI, even if the reasons are odd and the ratings are routine, and even if the real effects are shallow and, I'm guessing, prone to a fast fade. For now, the thing's got Big Dominating Buzz Plus. Aaaaowww....Make the buzzing stop...!

Sent by AlexB | 1:07 PM | 8-26-2008

Oh, you're entirely right about the media buzz. In fact, it's a good corollary to the entire point I'm trying to make that naturally, media coverage will gravitate to whatever is most popular, and as individual shows shrink across the board, the result is that coverage becomes more and more disproportionate to the actual popularity of the show.

In other words, the biggest show will always get the most coverage, and when that coverage is of a show that fewer people watch, then more and more people are hearing all the buzz despite not actually watching the show -- such as yourself.

In fact, I think the crush of that coverage is what creates the false "apparently, everyone watches this show except me" feeling. I certainly didn't intend to downplay the amount of media coverage, which is, of course, overwhelming.

Sent by Linda Holmes | 1:25 PM | 8-26-2008

Actually, people congregate en masse to watch AI at weekly AI "Parties"; I think these statistics actually mean that only 17.6% of tv owning households also have no LOUDLY OBJECTING family members. You see, fans of the show must go to a 'safe house' to watch in peace, hence the numbers are skewed.

Sent by Emma Lee | 2:39 PM | 8-26-2008

Interesting post! As an avid watcher and admitted voter of this year's AI, I probably belong in the class of lowest common denominator, as alluded to by some commenters in this thread. However, as a longtime NPR listener and contributor, do I get enough of a highest common denominator boost to come out average?

Anyway, not to be too cheeky about it, I would have to say that AI, whatever its numbers vis a vis those of the very different media landscape of the 1980s, most definitely is a cultural force, if not a phenomenon. Like Project Runway and Top Chef, which I also like, it invites me (and my daughter) to become invested in certain contestants whose talent, tenacity, and personality I prefer to others'. At the same time, it's good, escapist fun, like a well-written page-turner.

Now, regarding the cultural importance of reality t.v. in general, I'd say it's pretty strong. For example, I never watch Survivor. But I am sure that I have used some variation of the phrase "voted off the island" more than once. It's things like that that tell me something is a part of our (pop) cultural fabric.

Sent by Sarah | 2:44 PM | 8-26-2008

The TV stays in the closet until Saturday afternoon. Thank god all those programs you wrote about I was never a regular or even an irregular watcher. The old programs you mention was even before the cure by my newly married wife of learning the art of conversation about feelings rather than couch potatoeing every evening in front of the tube.

Sent by chris Hamman | 4:37 PM | 8-26-2008

Interesting point of view. I would just like to point out that I never watch American Idol. I've seen bits of episodes here and there, but that's about it. On the other hand, I currently watch about two Scarecrow and Mrs King (SMK) episodes every week.

It's unfair to assume that everyone has forgotten SMK. There are active message boards out there, tons of fanfic that is STILL being written and read, a big 25th anniversary party coming up, and lots of people begging for official SMK DVDs to be released. Once that happens, we will have something better to watch than American Idol.

Sent by Ronda | 10:38 PM | 8-26-2008

I still watch tapes of, read fan fiction based on, and participate in the fandom of Scarecrow and Mrs. King. I can't imagine that anyone, even those who watch it avidly, will be doing that with American Idol in 25 years.

Although it seems that "everyone" is watching AI (though I am 82.4% that per your figures, don't) When the powers that be in television land get over their current fascination with "reality" shows, I'm sure AI will follow the way of the pet rock.

Sent by Elizabeth | 1:01 AM | 8-27-2008

You should really do your research before you assume that NOBODY remembers Scarecrow and Mrs. King. I've seen that and REMEMBER it more than I even think about AI. I'd rather watch SMK any day of the week than a lot of the junk that graces the airwaves these day!

Sent by Neeney | 1:38 AM | 8-27-2008

Aw, you guys, it's not a slam on that show, I promise. I loved that show. I'm just saying, at the time, nobody believed it was dominating the culture. That's it, promise.

Sent by Linda Holmes | 7:40 AM | 8-27-2008

As someone who grew up with Scarecrow and Mrs. King. I am at the age where "reality" TV isn't entertainment. Namee me a show today that isn't Dumb! Even "drama shows go for the shock value insted of a good story line. So TV in the 70's and 80's were a bit cheesy. I would rather watch that then tone deaf morons make fools of themselves or see folks eat bugs for money.

Sent by Riva | 9:01 AM | 8-27-2008

As far as the media exposure of AI goes, it's the same with any other "event" the mainstream media chooses to "report" on. They cover things disproportionately to their occurrence in everyday life. Child kidnapping is very rare, but the way the media covers each one, it appears like it's much more common than it is. All the coverage of AI makes it look like "everybody" is watching.

I don't watch AI, not because I object to reality TV as a genre (which is sort of like objecting to the "novel" as a genre--it's really hard to put TAR and GlobeTrekker in the same category as, say, Flavor of Love 2) but because I just don't like it. I feel like I've been slightly exposed to the cultural "force" of the show, but mostly unwillingly and briefly, through various radio announcements, snippets in Time, etc. I'd have to say that if it's a "phenomenon," it's one that mostly missing my family and me.

Sent by Katie | 9:28 AM | 8-27-2008

Brenda's comments below sum up why the views expressed in this write up are redundant. Comparing ratings of TV shows in the days when choices were limited to ratings in an age with limitless options as well as the internet is really pointless.

There's a reason those who know better hail AI's ratings, it's the only show that still brings in ratings that were only possible when options on one's remote control were extremely limited.

Sent by oak | 6:23 PM | 8-27-2008

I also believe you are comparing apples to oranges. It like saying Titanic is the most successful movie of all time--well sure it you rely only on box office grosses and not look at the number of seats sold or take into account the rate of inflation.

I'm an American Idol fan although I am starting to find the formula getting a bit tiring. I am also a huge Scarecrow and Mrs. King fan and would much rather watch repeats of SMK or read fan fiction then watch much of what is on TV today. Scarecrow and Mrs. King had a great formula that work--it was fun and entertaining, combining action, intrigue, humor and romance. Twenty-five years later I don't believe fans of American Idol are going to be crying for a TV reunion like they are for Scarecrow and Mrs. King, much less remember who won American Idol which season; or remember their names.

And what's so hard to believe about Russians posing as cooking-show hosts, after all Julia Childs was a spy? The truth is stranger then fiction.

Sent by Anne | 12:19 PM | 8-28-2008

Heh, touche! But Julia Child wasn't giving out directions for assassinations disguised as recipes, that I've heard of.

Sent by Linda Holmes | 12:30 PM | 8-28-2008

"..were watching Scarecrow & Mrs. King in 1986. .'
I believe Scarecrow And Mrs King had even higher ratings at the end of the first Season -- 1984 - probably better than AI

Sent by ecc | 1:13 PM | 8-28-2008

"housewife who got into all kinds of scrapes with poison darts and killers posing as cooking-show hosts (really!) and all that good late-Cold War Russian-accented espionage business."

Julia Child was a SPY.

Sent by Tammi | 4:47 PM | 8-28-2008