Swan song for 'American Idol' after 15 game-changing years

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — It started on June 11, 2002, with a couple of unfamiliar hosts posing in an empty theater and making an overblown declaration to TV viewers.

"Live on this stage, an unknown talent will be launched into superstardom," said Brian Dunkleman.

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"You at home decide who will become the next American idol," intoned Ryan Seacrest.

The reasonable reaction: uh-huh, sure. But it turned out the two were underselling Fox's "American Idol."

The singing contest, which begins its 15th and final season Wednesday, was a blockbuster that invigorated its network. It made stars of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and others, and resurrected the TV talent show as a boom industry that includes NBC's "The Voice" and ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

"It not only was a huge success for Fox but impacted everyone else," said Bill Carroll, media analyst with Katz Television Group. "It once again underscored the fact that broadcast television is communal and an event."

"American Idol," from megaproducer Simon Fuller and based on his British hit "Pop Idol," did even more. It breathed life into the music industry as it and network TV both grappled with technology-driven changes in consumer habits.

See where former "Idol" contestants are now:

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American Idol contestants - Where are they now?
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Swan song for 'American Idol' after 15 game-changing years
LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 22: Recording artist Taylor Hicks arrives at Tony La Russa's 3rd annual Leaders & Legends Gala benefitting the Animal Rescue Foundation at the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino on November 22, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for Animal Rescue Foundation)
Finalist Clay Aiken, of Raleigh, N.C., performs during the final competition of American Idol Tuesday, May 20, 2003, in Universal City, Calif. Television viewers have already decided which of the 24-year-old Southern singers will claim the title of "American Idol."
Clay Aiken attends the Broadway opening of "After Midnight" on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013 in New York.
American Idol's Constantine Maroulis poses for photographers as he arrives for the New York City benefit premiere of "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith" at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York, Thursday, May 12, 2005. Proceeds from the premiere will benefit The Children's Heath Fund, a not-for-profit organization committed to providing medical care to the nation's homeless and disadvantaged children. (AP Photo)
Justin Guarini, 23, of Doylestown, Pa., sings during the final episode of Fox's television competition "American Idol," in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2002. The winner earns a recording contract, and will release a CD single later this month and a full album in November. (AP Photo)
Justin Guarini attends the Broadway opening of "After Midnight" on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013 in New York. (AP Photo)
American Idol finalist Fantasia Barrino is emotional after finishing her last performance during the finale of the music competition show Tuesday, May 25, 2004, at the Kodak Theatre in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
Fantasia Barrino attends the after party for the opening night performance of Broadway's "After Midnight" on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013 in New York. (AP Photo)
Constantine Maroulis attends the Songwriters Hall of Fame 44th annual induction and awards gala on Thursday, June 13, 2013 in New York. (AP Photo)
American Idol finalist Diana DeGarmo performs during the finale of the music competition show, Tuesday, May 25, 2004, at the Kodak Theatre in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
Diana DeGarmo arrives at the 2013 AFI FEST premiere of "Lone Survivor" at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
Frenchie Davis attends the 45th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on February 23, 2003 in New York City. (Getty Images)
Frenchie Davis attends For the Love of R&B - A Tribute to Whitney Houston at Tru Hollywood on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, in Los Angeles.
Finalist Ruben Studdard, from Birmingham, Ala., performs his first song Burt Bacharach's "A House is Not a Home" during the final competition of American Idol Tuesday, May 20, 2003, in Universal City, Calif.
Ruben Studdard, left, and Candice Glover perform onstage at the 2013 Soul Train Awards at the Orleans Arena on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013 in Las Vegas.
Contestant Sanjaya Malakar attends an American Idol celebration of this seasons' top 12 contestants held at Astra West Thursday March 8, 2007 in West Hollywood, Calif. (AP Photo)
Singer Sanjaya Malakar attends The 2nd Annual ASPCA Rock n' Roll LA Benefit at The Olympic Collection on October 6, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)
Bo Bice performs "Long, Long Road" during the "American Idol" live finale in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 25, 2005. (AP Photo)
Bo Bice arrives at the "American Idol" finale at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live on Thursday, May 16, 2013, in Los Angeles.
Jordin Sparks perform "I Saw Her Standing There" during the opening act of the season finale of American Idol on Wednesday, May 23, 2007 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
Jordin Sparks arrives at the American Music Awards at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
Contestant Blake Lewis attends an American Idol celebration of this seasons' top 12 finalists held at Astra West Thursday March 8, 2007 in West Hollywood, Calif. (AP Photo)
Blake Lewis arrives at the "American Idol" finale at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live on Thursday, May 16, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
American Idol Season 7's Top 24 contestant David Archuleta poses at a party in their honor, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
David Archuleta performs during the 2011 "Make A Difference" benefit concert at the Ronald McDonald House on November 8, 2011 in New York City.
Crystal Bowersox poses backstage after the "American Idol" finale on Wednesday, May 26, 2010, in Los Angeles.
Musician Crystal Bowersox at the Mastercard Priceless Premieres Presents Justin Timberlake event, on Sunday, May 5, 2013 at Roseland Ballroom in New York City, New York.
Kimberley Locke, Rickey Smith and Vanessa Olivarez. (Getty Images)
Kimberley Locke arrives at the "American Idol" finale at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live on Thursday, May 16, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
Contestant Melinda Doolittle attends an American Idol celebration of this seasons' top 12 finalists held at Astra West Thursday March 8, 2007 in West Hollywood, Calif. (AP Photo)
Singer Melinda Doolittle attends the Red Tie Gala Hosted by Blood:Water Mission and sponsored by Noodle & Boo at Hutton Hotel on November 21, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Getty Images)
Danny Gokey of Milwaukee, Wis., a finalist on "American Idol," mugs for photographers at the American Idol Top 13 Party in Los Angeles, Thursday, March 5, 2009. (AP Photo)
Danny Gokey arrives at the "American Idol" finale at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live on Thursday, May 16, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
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The show's end is the result of dwindling ratings, the inevitable fate of even durable performers. "Idol," which averaged more than 30 million weekly viewers at its 2006 peak and ranked No. 1 for nine consecutive years, averaged about 11 million last season (still enough by today's standards to land it in the top 20, but with fewer advertiser-favored younger viewers).

Whatever its change in fortunes, the series will get a send-off worthy of a television landmark, said executive producer Trish Kinane.

As she sees it, that means paying tribute to its past while focusing on the battle among this year's contestants to become the last "Idol" winner.

"It's that tricky thing of, 'Hey, it's the 15th season, let's do nostalgia, let's look back at the show's really rich history,'" Kinane said. "But on the other hand, you've got to find an amazing American Idol. So we're trying to combine both of those things."

To accomplish that "organically," she said, past winners and familiar runners-up will be sprinkled throughout the season, starting with the open auditions in which Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Taylor Hicks and others were on hand to share tips with the hopefuls.

Plans also call for duets pairing contestants with their now-famous predecessors, who "all want to be involved, somehow," Kinane said.

A famous non-Idol, Kanye West, made a surprise appearance at the judges' auditions in San Francisco in September, with wife Kim Kardashian West along as his cheerleader. His "tryout" is included in Wednesday's episode.

The season debut is a four-hour, two-night affair, airing from 8-10 p.m. EST Wednesday and Thursday and opening on a retrospective note with the Seacrest-Dunkleman '02 clip.

One contestant featured in the premiere demonstrates the show's impressive hold on its fans. Michelle Marie Lecza of Daytona Beach, Florida, recalls watching it as a 4-year-old and can recite all of the winners, in order.

"'American Idol' is what I based my life off of. I am going to walk into the audition room and go get my dream," the braces-wearing 15-year-old says.

Such fervor made "American Idol" a well-timed hit. With social media gaining steam, viewers wanted to get in on the real-time conversation about "Idol" — good news for networks selling commercial airtime and the sponsors who wanted their ads to be seen, not skipped as the show was replayed on a DVR.

The live "Idol" episodes increased that appetite and launched the networks' embrace of a variety of other live broadcasts that included NBC's musicals "The Sound of Music" and "The Wiz."

See photos of all of the "Idol" winners:

15 PHOTOS
American Idol Winners
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Swan song for 'American Idol' after 15 game-changing years

Kelly Clarkson

(Photo via Getty Images)

Ruben Studdard

(Photo via Getty Images)

Fantasia Barrino

(Photo via Getty Images)

Carrie Underwood

(Photo via AP)

Taylor Hicks

(Photo via AP)

Jordin Sparks

(Photo via AP)

David Cook

(Photo via Getty Images)

Kris Allen

(Photo via Getty Images)

Lee DeWyze

(Photo via Getty Images)

Scotty McCreery

(Photo via Getty Images)

Phillip Phillips

(Photo via Getty Images)

Candice Glover

(Photo via Getty Images)

Caleb Johnson

(Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage via Getty Images)

Nick Fradiani

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

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It was a salve as well for the music business: In 2009, Steve Knopper, author of "Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age," called "American Idol" and its robust digital sales one of the few bright spots for the industry as consumers grew increasingly resistant to shelling out for albums.

The series became such an impressive promotional platform that established artists including Steven Tyler, Mariah Carey and Prince dropped in as panelists, mentors and performers.

So did Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban, returning for their third year together as judges to usher "Idol" to its conclusion. They're joined by the savvy, unflappable Seacrest, the show's on-camera linchpin who outlasted fellow original cast members Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson (and Dunkleman, who was one-and-done).

Urban said he's focused less on the show's farewell than what he calls the "job at hand."

"I more often forget it's the last season until somebody mentions it," the country music star said during a production break at the Dolby Theatre. "It's just finding the right person and making sure we don't miss somebody."

He said the show retains its power to jump-start a beginning career. For the farewell season, some 75,000 people swarmed to auditions in Atlanta; Denver; Philadelphia and Little Rock, Arkansas, in addition to San Francisco.

"I love the fact that these guys and girls still see the potency and potential of something like 'Idol' to take them to places really, really quickly," Urban said.

It would be ideal if the final season produces another "American Idol" pop superstar, Connick said.

The show "has had a lot of hits, had a lot of misses. I would love to see somebody come out and put a bookend on what Kelly Clarkson did the first year, which is to sell a ton of records, sell a lot of concert tickets and became a household name," the jazz musician said.

"That would be a great way to end it," he said.

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