How American Idol Redefined the Digital and Social Landscape

When people ask me how I became so attuned to digesting pop culture, the answer’s simple: I always held a really strong interest in television ratings and how the creative front you see is actually controlled by nothing more than how much advertisers would be willing to pay to buy a :30 spot for that show. As a digital + social lead at kglobal, it’s the natural source of my emphasis on results-driven creative.

And nothing in our generation has redefined television more than American Idol, a show that shuttered its doors after 15 seasons on the air.

In Idol’s heyday, it regularly brought in demo ratings of 10-12 points. Though the ratio isn’t quite 1:1, this more or less meant that between 10-12 million people between the ages of 18-49 (the ad buying “demo”) watched any given episode. Its fifth season averaged a 12.6 demo rating, 25% more than the second-most watched show that year, Grey’s Anatomy (9.3). And, yes, that’s right, although 30 million people actually watched an average episode of Idol, ad buying rates are only controlled by people 18-to-49-years-old. Sorry, mom.

Though many Idol retrospectives have focused on this once-in-a-generation feat, it’s also important to understand just how Idol revolutionized digital and social media. Its this part of the legacy where the show really leveraged its popularity:


A Sense of Online Community

When Idol premiered in 2002, the internet was around but no one knew what to actually do on it. I browsed a few Pokémon websites and probably created a few of my own, as well. But, everything online was intentionally created in a vacuum; nothing online ever seeped out to anyone’s offline life. It wasn’t until American Idol came along and gave an offline community a way to share their thoughts online. An official American Idol forum allowed people to voice their thoughts and opinions on that week’s performances—sometimes, just as harsh as the ones judge Simon Cowell would dole out. Niche genre television like The X-Files and Babylon 5 slowly found copycat versions of forums to discuss the latest episodes, but only Idol’s cut across a wide, diverse group of people.


Mobile Enters the Mainstream

As technology evolved, so did American Idol. A multimillion dollar contract with Cingular, later AT&T, allowed the show to be at the forefront of the latest trends in mobile technology. Indeed, Idol in its early seasons is credited for introducing text messaging stateside; with a simple text message to a 1-888 number, they could place a vote for Carrie Underwood without having to sit through endless busy signals. As mobile use became more prevalent and sophisticated, Idol led appropriately, with deals on Myspace and then Facebook. When Twitter grew in influence, Idol encouraged all of their finalists to cultivate dedicated fanbases on social media. The music stan culture surrounding Idol grew so prominent during the early 2000s seasons that contestant fanbase hashtags would be displayed after their performances. Though Idol never quite solidified its footing on Twitter, The X Factor USA would later take the mobile-first emphasis and run with it: Fifth Harmony, formed during The X Factor USA’s second season, secured several hit records due to the millions of diehard fans the quintet gained and cultivated on Twitter during their season.


Introduction of the Second Screen

Idol in its final three years saw sharp ratings declines. It was no longer the show networks would counterprogram reruns against; instead, it was regularly beaten by The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. Still, Idol had one last trick up its sleeve. In an effort to bring younger viewers back, it introduced real time voting in its results rounds, allowing Twitter users to save one of the bottom two contestants live based off final performances. The intent was twofold: (1) to get people to watch the show live and (2) to get people talking about the show in general, since they were already on Twitter, anyway. Shocking eliminations such as Jennifer Hudson’s were no longer effective being next-day watercooler conversation; instead, FOX had to make these conversations happen live—as contestants were belting out their songs, they were also on their phones or laptops engaging in a conversation with other fans. In essence, Idol’s final contribution to the evolution of digital media is a combination of the two tactics they pioneered over a decade ago.


Event television like championship sports games and marquee award shows have taken Idol’s ideas and run with them, but every breakthrough idea has come from the advertisers, not the networks. The Walking Dead, currently television’s number one show, has entered the cultural zeitgeist but has still yet to contribute to changing how people consume culture. It’s entirely possible that we’ll never quite get a show like Idol ever again.

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