Imagine a world where Kelly Clarkson isn't a worldwide pop icon, but a struggling cocktail waitress. Or a world in which Carrie Underwood isn't a country music superstar, but a journalism student in Oklahoma. Or a world where Ryan Seacrest is an unknown deejay, and Simon Cowell is just a record executive in England. That's what could've happened -- if, ten years ago today, American Idol hadn't debuted on Fox as a summer replacement series.
It's hard to remember that a decade ago, Fox decided to air the new show in June because nobody thought the idea would fly. In England, the show's predecessor, Pop Idol, had done well, but America was a different story. Richard Rushfield, author of American Idol: The Untold Story, tells ABC News Radio, "Singing shows on American television had failed consistently and the format was considered dead. So, they just thought they would sneak this in as a very cheap way to fill some otherwise dead summer air."
Instead, Fox ended up with one of the biggest hits in television history. Rushfield points to two reasons, and their names are Simon Cowell and Kelly Clarkson. In Simon, Rushfield says, American TV experienced something "revolutionary."
"He would tell acts that they were terrible. He would say that entire episodes of the show were bad," explains Rushfield. "And nobody had seen people talk in this direct, honest way." He adds that Simon's "mean judge" persona -- which was quickly copied by every other reality competition show that followed -- spoke to a "need to break through what was seen as sort of the clutter and the inauthenticity of entertainment."
As for Kelly, Rushfield says her triumph is what gave the show its staying power, because in its first season, it actually delivered what it promised: it searched for, and found, a superstar. "This Texas tomboy girl who came from nowhere...was the underdog until the very final weeks of the season," Rushfield points out. "She created this story for them that became the American dream that was repeated year after year."
Season 11 finalist Colton Dixon echoes this idea, telling ABC News Radio that American Idol is "so raw and so true." He says, "There's truly nothing fake about it. We really are normal people on the side of the street or at home or at college or wherever, who wanted to do music, and this amazing opportunity comes up and we chase after our dream...And that's what Idol gives all of the contestants."
Ultimately, opportunity may be one of the biggest contributions of the show. Explaining why she auditioned for an unproven TV talent show 10 years ago, Kelly Clarkson tells ABC News Radio, "At the time...I had nothing to my name. So, I literally would have done anything to try and get in the door." Idol opened that door and let anyone walk through. Season 11 runner-up Jessica Sanchez says, "It's helped a lot of artists, definitely. It helps a lot just to get your name out there."
Rushfield explains, "I think the music industry before American Idol was seen as something very closed off...It was something that was seen as an average American could not be a part of it. And American Idol created this way for people to sort of bust their way in."
Though people love to complain about American Idol, especially the relative sameness of the most recent five winners, it's safe to say that it completely and utterly changed TV and music as we know it. Not only did the show turn Fox into a powerhouse, it became one of the top-rated series in history and has spawned countless imitators, with The X Factor and The Voice only the latest arrivals to the party.
In addition, Idol has produced a string of top-selling artists in multiple genres, who together have sold some 57 million albums and 100 million singles and digital downloads in the U.S. alone. Idol alumni have won Grammys, dominated radio airplay, starred on Broadway, appeared in movies and even brought home an Oscar. Idol alums have scored 30 Billboard top 10 hits on the Hot 100, and racked up more than 300 #1 hits on various Billboard charts.
Season eight champ Kris Allen says, "Obviously, you look at different labels' rosters and it's like, 'Wow, a lot of these people came from American Idol!' ...It just shows you that talented people are gonna rise to the top."
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio