Quick: Think about last year's "American Idol." What pops into your mind? Chances are it was a kid named Sanjaya. He's since been forgotten, but stands as a symbol for the entire sixth season, which is noteworthy for its lack of noteworthiness.
That was not Sanjaya's fault, but his fame, popularity and memorability heralds "American Idol’s" new reality: The show has reached its peak.
The signs are everywhere. Ratings for "American Idol 6" were down (20 percent for the finale alone); RCA Records recently dropped two "Idol" winners, Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks, and one runner-up, Katharine McPhee, from its roster; and the show has been cloned relentlessly and those clones fail, even one created by the same producers ("The Next Great American Band").
Most significantly, years have passed since the series delivered on its promise to crown an actual idol. The very premise of the show has become false as "American Idol" has reached its maximum level of saturation. There's nowhere to go but down, at least as long as it keeps weighing itself down with the same now-tired conventions.
The auditions continually bring out the same delusional people. Simon Cowell dishes out the same insults. Paula Abdul delivers the same drivel. Randy Jackson does whatever it is he does. Ryan Seacrest and Cowell pretend to bicker. Producers manipulate viewers' and contestants' emotions pointlessly. Results shows are filled with everything but actual results. Singing becomes an excuse for product placement. Viewers vote off the presumed winner weeks early.
It's so predictable it's boring. While the judges are undeniably just as important as the contestants, they don't have anything new to offer. It's not entertaining to watch them do the same shtick season after season, and they look genuinely bored and irritated for a large part of the time. (Perhaps that explains why Simon has said he'll leave the series after its 10th season; he really is bored.)
Where are the idols?
The only things that inject life into the series are those moments that have nothing to do with actual singing, like last year's focus on Sanjaya's hair. That human drama is inevitably fascinating, and there will unquestionably be headlines related to this year's group of semifinalists and finalists, but this is not "The Hills." This is a series that promises to deliver an idol but no longer does so.
FOX's reality smash has certainly produced more than just ratings over its six-season history. Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood are both true idols, continuing to gather awards, critical acclaim and record sales. But they seem to be the only two "American Idols" out of six.
Many of the series' other contestants have gone on to respectable careers, like those now performing on Broadway or other stages. Jennifer Hudson won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and Chris Daughtry broke records with his band's debut album. Others have niche fan bases that they continue to entertain.
But when someone places fourth (as Chris Daughtry did), seventh (as Jennifer Hudson did) or just has a bright personality (as Sanjaya did) and then upstages the actual winner, something's not quite right.
This downturn was inevitable, and producers have only themselves to blame. By offering ratings bait in the form of awful auditions for weeks and weeks each season, all but ignoring the singers who will eventually form the top 24 or 12, they set a tone that establishes the show as more of a joke than a true singing competition. That's not to say they shouldn't craft an entertaining series, but for a program that emphasizes singing, it might be helpful to have more than passing references to good singers.
That unrelenting focus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the auditions seem to draw more and more idiots in costumes and fewer and fewer breathtakingly awesome singers — and it draws viewers who want to see that circus and then stick around to vote for the class clowns instead of the people who can sing.
Certainly, there was talent present last season, as there has been throughout the show's history. Both "American Idol 6" winner Jordin Sparks and runner-up Blake Lewis are strong singers and performers. But they aren't idols, and their flat initial record sales proved that. (Both debuted at No. 10, and Jordin had the lowest first-week sales of any "Idol" winner.) Presumed winner and thoroughly praised contestant Melinda Doolittle has all but disappeared after coming in third.
The composition of last year's top 12 and 24 indicated that the show either doesn't draw the level of talent that would be necessary to have powerhouse semifinalists and finalists, or producers care less about choosing talent and more about creating entertainment in the form of people like Sanjaya.
Because of that, after the show concluded, people stopped caring. And why should they care? They weren't given a reason to.
Of course, "American Idol" isn't going to sputter out and die tomorrow. It will most likely remain the No. 1 show in the country for its seventh season, even if it continues to lose viewers. "Survivor" is a good example of a series that enraptured and captivated the nation, peaked and then settled in to become a top-15 staple in the ratings that doesn't draw the same level of breathless coverage as it once did. "American Idol" should hope for such a fate, if it can figure out a way to subtly reinvent itself each year as "Survivor" does.
For "American Idol 7," a temporary reprieve may come thanks to the writers' strike. With little scripted television this spring, audiences might tune in by default, not because they're thrilled by the series that once delivered on its promises.
is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.