Ten years ago when “American Idol” first hit the airwaves, the biggest star on the show was a faded pop star with a long period of irrelevancy behind her.
What a difference a decade makes.
We’re a far way removed from former stars like Paula Abdul filling the judging panel on reality competition shows. This week, Mariah Carey joined “American Idol” as the show’s newest judge, following the departures of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. Country star Brad Paisley is also rumored to be joining the show. Both Carey and Paisley are huge current stars with large fanbases, and they’re the latest examples of the changing face of TV judges.
Judging panels used to be populated by has-beens and hangers-on, or personalities untested in the American marketplace. In the early seasons of “America’s Got Talent” you had stars like David Hasselhoff judging talent, which was barely a step above guys like Lorenzo Lamas weighing potential hotties on ABC’s “Are You Hot?” And there was always a gabby Brit on the panel, whether it was Simon Cowell on “Idol,” Piers Morgan on “AGT” or Len Goodman on “Dancing With the Stars.”
But the face of talent judges began to change in summer 2010 when Jennifer Lopez joined “American Idol,” following Cowell’s final season with the show. Lopez was a star whose career had begun to cool but who still packed a significant punch; she was far from a has-been and still had plenty of va-va-voom left in her. Then NBC’s “The Voice” upped the ante even further, enlisting Christina Aguilera for duty, along with current stars Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green and Blake Shelton. That put stars with currently charting singles in the judges’ chairs, and moved the needle even further.
“The X-Factor,” which attempted to resuscitate Abdul’s career (again) and enlisted permanently-stalled pop starlet Nicole Scherzinger as a judge (along with Cowell and record exec L.A. Reid), couldn’t compete. So it threw out Abdul and Scherzinger after the show’s underperforming first season and nabbed Britney Spears, a major star who is still a top-tier act (despite several years of crazy, erratic behavior) as its new judge. Prior to that, Howard Stern — the self-anointed “King of All Media” (and still the greatest host in the history of radio) — jumped on board with “America’s Got Talent.” And with this week’s addition of Carey to “Idol,” it is confirmed that the “cheesy” stigma of participating on reality competition shows has all but been erased.
Big stars don’t necessarily guarantee big ratings; Kelly Clarkson couldn’t help make ABC’s “Duets” a hit, and Stern hasn’t had much effect on “America’s Got Talent’s” viewership. But they’re bringing more credibility and attention to their shows, and are far from the D-list celebrities who populate shows like “Celebrity Apprentice.”
It has yet to be seen how well Britney or Mariah will fare as judges, or the effect they’ll have on their respective shows. But in a weird way we have Paula Abdul to thank for their being there, which means the impact she made 10 years ago was even bigger than she could have imagined.