American Idol is a music competition show that debuted on Fox on June 11, 2002. Subsequent seasons have aired between January and May. Idol was co-hosted in its first season by Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman; Seacrest has handled the duties alone ever since.
A spinoff of the British series Pop Idol, American Idol has had basically the same format since its beginning. A season begins with amateur singers between the ages of 15 and 28 (this has varied over the years) auditioning before a panel of three or four judges. Those who are successful move on to a group winnowing process over various rounds. After the field has been cut to a set number of contestants (typically this has been 24), the singers begin competing against each other directly, performing music based on different themes every week. Viewers cast votes by phone, text message, and online, with the lowest finisher or finishers being eliminated until one remains at the end of the season.
The original three-judge panel for Idol was made of British music executive Simon Cowell, session bassist Randy Jackson, and pop star/choreographer Paula Abdul. The caustic commentary of Cowell made him the show’s first star, and set the tone for the series. The judges can attempt to sway viewers with their remarks, and since Season 8 have been permitted a one-time-only “save” for a contestant they believe has been voted out too soon, but they have little direct influence on the competition once the finalists have been chosen. The judging panel changed for the first time in Season 8 when songwriter Kara DioGuardi was added. In the following season, Ellen DeGeneres replaced Abdul. Season 10 saw the departure of Cowell (who moved on to The X Factor), DioGuardi, and DeGeneres. Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler came on at that point with the panel again reduced to three, but both chose to leave after working Seasons 10 and 11. Mariah Carey has been named as a new judge for Season 12.
The reputation of Idol was enhanced when its first winner, Kelly Clarkson, went on to become a successful recording artist. The other major stars produced by Idol have been Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Jordin Sparks, and Jennifer Hudson (though only Underwood and Sparks actually won their seasons). Hudson won an Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls. The contestant pool has evolved over the years. A wider age range is now permitted, and contestants have represented virtually all genres of popular music aside from rap. Singers were allowed to use musical instruments beginning in Season 7; since that season, every winner of the show has been a male who at least occasionally played the guitar.
Idol has been the most successful primetime television program of the 21st century, if not ever. It was the top-rated primetime series for a record eight consecutive seasons between 2003-04 and 2010-11. Despite ratings that have slipped noticeably since its peak in 2006, and increased competition from other music programming, Idol remains the highest-rated reality show.