Things aren't looking good for American Idol. The show has been in a ratings free-fall, and in addition to record lows in total number of viewers, the average viewer age is now over 50. Both of these things are generally fatal for older shows like Idol, so we could be seeing the last of this once venerable series. And this season is just as bad as ratings suggest, since the tired, cookie-cutter format has now been saddled with one of the whitest Top 13 ever.
Statistically, this season's dip in diversity has only been slight: the previous all-time low was 25 percent people of color in the Top 12 of Seasons 5 and 9. However, compared to last year's all-time high of 60 percent people of color, this year's dip to 23 percent — just three contestants out of 13 — seems extreme. Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr., and Keith Urban selected one African American contestant to go through, and America gave only two women of color a pass to the next round.
Season 5 was the most-watched season of Idol, and it had only three people of color... but it aired eight years ago. For comparison, back then in 2006, we hadn't yet had the first African American president, and same-sex marriage was only legal in Massachusetts. Hopefully opinions have changed in the last eight years, but since eight of 10 contestants chosen by the people this year are white, it suggests otherwise.
With the average age creeping over 50, and less than 8 percent of the 18-49 demographic watching, the ratings suggest that the reason for this sudden drop in diversity may be linked to age. Last season's very diverse season had almost 25 percent more young viewers than this season's premiere. This significant increase in age, partnered with the drop in diversity, says some troubling things about over-50 network television viewers.
Regardless of the reason for this whitewashed Top 13, though, American Idol is clearly in a death spiral. Perhaps spin-offs like The Voice and The X-Factor can learn from Idol's mistakes, and younger viewers will once again pick a diverse range of winners.