On television at least, it looks as if the beat doesn’t go on.
The phenomenon of music-based television shows, which have dominated the ratings for more than a decade, seems by nearly every measure to be over or in steep decline.
“They flooded the market,” said Simon Cowell, perhaps the individual most responsible for turning amateur singers into superstars, with his roles on “American Idol,” “The X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent.” “There have just been a ton of shows, and something has simply gone awry.”
As broadcast network executives descend upon Manhattan this week to hawk their new programming wares to advertisers in the springtime ritual known as the upfronts, shows filled with music have gone achingly flat.
It is hardly the first time television has burned out a genre through mass imitation and overexposure. Networks rode westerns into the ground. They exhausted the audience with singers trying variety shows. At one point, almost every night had a newsmagazine. And, most famously, ABC ran the sprockets off its game show hit “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” with four episodes a week at its height, leading to a plunge in ratings and its relegation into syndication.
The music genre has been both longer lasting and more potent than most of these examples — until now.
The show with the starkest reversal of fortune is “American Idol,” a show once so overpowering that rival networks gave up trying to compete with it. Now “Idol,” which spawned the careers of Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson, collects ratings that are even worse than many of the woeful shows it once left in its wake.
Last week, the onetime blockbuster slid to a new all-time low for one of its performance shows, with only about seven million viewers (one season it averaged more than 30 million) and a puny 1.7 rating in the category its network, Fox, sells to advertisers — viewers between the ages of 18 and 49.
“Idol” once averaged a 12.6 in that group; as recently as 2011 it averaged an 8.6. Even this season, “Idol” started out with a 4.7 rating in that category. And the median age of viewers of the show has grayed drastically: growing from 32 in its first year to 52 this season.
“It’s now your grandmother’s ‘Idol,’ ” said Brad Adgate, the senior vice president of research for the media-buying firm Horizon Media.
The fall of “Idol” has been several years in the making: it slumped 30 percent each of the previous two years. But it fell from such a lofty perch that the show remained a hit. But its recent demise has sent the show into uncharted, inhospitable territory. Its precipitous drop means that the show is no longer the gold mine that it once was for Fox. One executive familiar with Fox’s ad sales said that “American Idol” generated close to $3 billion in profit for the network over its 13-year history. But little of that has been banked lately.
“They almost certainly had to offer make-goods this season,” Mr. Adgate said. (“Make-goods” are free commercials to compensate for shortfalls in ratings guarantees.)
The malaise affecting music shows has already killed off “X Factor,” an “Idol” clone brought to the United States by Mr. Cowell (the franchise still runs in more than 40 countries). The show premiered to much fanfare on Fox, but was gone after three seasons of declining ratings. Fox executives also became convinced its presence diluted interest in “Idol.”
As the music-competition shows sputtered in recent seasons, music in other forms was also losing luster on television: NBC’s Broadway drama, “Smash,” opened big and closed early; ABC’s country-music variant, “Nashville,” has never posted anything beyond subsistence ratings. (ABC delayed its decision to renew “Nashville” for a third season until almost the last minute last week.)
And “Glee,” Fox’s big hit in the musical-drama arena, once averaged over a 6 rating in that 18-49 group. Now it barely can score a 1 rating.
“Dancing With the Stars” was half canceled by ABC last season, dropping from two shows a week to one. That stemmed a ratings plunge, but the show continues to lose young viewers. “Dancing” now has one of the oldest audiences in television, with a median age of over 62.
Even the last remaining music titan, NBC’s “The Voice,” though still one of the more formidable shows on network television, dropped to a new ratings low last week. That raised questions — among some NBC competitors at least — about whether the show’s downward spiral might be accelerated because NBC runs two cycles of the competition each season. (The median age of “Voice” viewers has also climbed from 42 in its first season to 52 this year.)
The slackening in ratings for these shows is being matched by tepid record sales. “The awful stat is in stars created by these shows,” Mr. Cowell said. “The last true breakout artist we had was Carrie Underwood on ‘Idol.’ That was eight years ago.”
“Idol” made a raft of stars early, including Ms. Underwood, Ms. Clarkson, Ms. Hudson and Chris Daughtry. The recent roster is less populated with familiar names, though Phillip Phillips, the winner two seasons ago, has had commercial success. The winners on “The Voice” are much more obscure. “Who does better? The ‘Voice’ judges or the ‘Voice’ contestants?” Mr. Cowell said. “It’s quite obvious the judges have sold a ton more records.”
One production executive who has worked on music shows and has had years of interactions with music executives, said, “I think the record companies are off the notion that they can create stars off these shows.” The executive asked not to be identified because of continuing relationships with both music and television executives.
Mr. Cowell said the business model for these shows should be at least as much about finding hit singers as winning hit ratings. He said he only got into television as a way to find performers for his label who would sell records and concert tickets.
The live tours featuring “Idol” performers are not what they once were either. Marc Graboff, president of Core Media Group, parent of 19 Entertainment, the owner of the “Idol” franchise, said: “We’re definitely doing a tour this year. There is a passionate core audience. It’s smaller than it was.”
Everything about “Idol” is smaller, leading to speculation that next season Fox could possibly keep the performance show, but drop its especially low-rated results show. But “Idol” will produce 59 hours of television this season, hours — even at diminished ratings levels — Fox would be hard-pressed to replace.
Mr. Graboff said that he would not be averse to trimming some hours off that total. “We’re in the middle of discussions with Fox,” he said. “We want to protect the franchise. Fox wants to use ‘Idol’ to launch other things. I understand that.”
Certainly fewer singing shows are being pitched to networks, though ABC has both an upcoming singing competition (“Rising Star”) and a series slated for fall, “Galavant,” which is a “musical comedy fairy tale” that will offer original music from the famed Disney composer Alan Menken.
Both Mr. Graboff and Mr. Cowell said that the music genre format wasn’t dead. Indeed, Mr. Cowell promised a surprise new show to be announced during this week’s upfronts to an industry that, he noted, is famously fickle.
“When ‘X Factor’ doesn’t do the numbers you want, for a while you’re a pariah. It’s over. ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,’ ” Mr. Cowell said. “I’ve had that all my life in the record business. You have a massive hit, then you sign another artist who doesn’t hit and it’s ‘Don’t go near Simon. He is so over.’ Then you come back with somebody else and you’re hot again. That’s what I’ve always accepted about television in America.”