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