American Idol Ratings End Season On an Off Note

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It may still be America’s top reality show, but the ratings for Wednesday night’s season finale suggest it may not hold that title forever.

This year’s finale for American Idol pulled out all the stops, from William Hung’s rap to Paula’s surprise return to Simon’s glowing send-off and a neck-and-neck battle between winner Lee DeWyze and runner-up Crystal Bowersox. But still, there were plenty of viewers out there who showned no interest whatsoever in just who would turn out to be the nation’s 2010 pop idol.

The ratings for the two-hour finale Wednesday were off by a good 18 percent from last year, with 24.2 million viewers tuning in. Still enough to win the night, by far, but hardly the numbers that were put up just a year ago on the same finale. It was an odd, disappointing conclusion to a ratings season that had started out so strong, with a huge boost coming in the form of Ellen DeGeneres joining the judges table. But then the TV audience started waning and it was a trend that never quite changed course, resulting in the least-watched Idol finale in half a decade.

Now all eyes in the industry turn to the future. If the gradual audience decline continues to 2011, or even accelerates with the loss of Simon Cowell at the show’s center, how many viewers can be lost before the cultural reach and impact of American Idol starts to wane as well? For all the show’s shortcomings, its greatest asset is that it remains event television – a cultural touchstone that is widely discussed and debated around the water cooler the next day. Enough people watch it that others feel like they should be watching it too, if only to keep up with the conversation.

But if enough people fade away, will the gradual decline turn into an avalanche?