American Idol, CSI & the Passing of the Monoculture

It doesn’t seem that long ago, really, that two influential, iconic network juggernauts dominated the ratings, week after week, year after year: Fox’s American Idol and CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Both shows spawned imitators and shaped America’s TV culture. Both exhibited a Goliath-like ability to intimidate any would-be rivals. And both, like Goliath, were officially felled this week by their respective networks after years of dwindling ratings.

Oh, we’re not quite done yet. Next fall will see a movie-length farewell for CSI that reunites series stalwarts William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger in a sendoff I’m confident will include one last slow-mo bullet-cam journey through some unfortunate victim’s innards. As for Idol, it’ll get one last season in 2016. Fox has already announced it’ll play its powerful nostalgia card too. I’m sure we can expect to see most of the show’s legit idols to make appearances (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry and others).

In their prime, Idol and CSI commanded massive audiences, the likes of which we’re unlikely to ever see again. American Idol’s 2006 finale, for instance, drew a staggering 36.4 million viewers. Compare that to the just 7.7 million who tuned in for this season’s finale earlier this week. Similarly, CSI at its peak drew some 26 million American viewers a week and 63 million worldwide. In contrast, the series’ most-watched episode this season drew just 10.3 million viewers.

I have to count myself among those who once watched both series regularly but who’s since drifted away. When my wife and I got married in 2004, both shows were “event television” for us. We rarely missed them. I even used to vote pretty regularly for Idol contestants.

Since then, our lives have gotten more complicated with the arrival of three kiddos. Our TV viewing is sporadic at best, and violent crime procedurals like the wave of imitators CSI spawned are definitely a thing of the past for us.

But the drift we’ve personally experienced—and that many others seem to have experienced too—has more to do with just our life changes. Since the advent of these two shows about a decade and a half ago, the number of entertainment options has simply exploded. Amercian Idol and CSI spanned the gap between the last days of network dominance and the arrival of critically heralded scripted cable shows (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, among many others) and the further fragmentation that’s come with the arrival of new content players such as Netflix and Amazon. Today, critically hailed series like these draw only a fragment of the viewership that ratings Goliaths like American Idol and CSI once did, week in and week out, for years.

I suspect we’ll never see the likes of these series again, shows that were indeed event television that resulted in watercooler conversations in workplaces around the country the next day. They’re monolithic monuments to a dying monoculture, a time when many of us shared the same experience.

I have to admit that makes me just a bit nostalgic for our more culturally cohesive past. That said, I think it’s also important to keep things in perspective: They’re just TV shows. I’m pretty sure my life is no worse for not having watched these series recently. And I’m also sure that sharing time with my family is ultimately a lot more important than sharing the kind of cultural experiences American Idol and CSI once afforded.