How American Idol Lost to Dancing With the Stars

This week Alicia Keys mentored the American Idol contestants for "Idol Gives Back," but America really wanted to see Kate Gosselin get egg on her face during her "Breakfast Club" foxtrot. In what's starting to become a regular occurrence, Dancing With the Stars beat American Idol in the ratings—20 million people watched Monday's episode of Dancing, compared with 19.1 million for Tuesday's Idol. None of this should be surprising, given that Dancing has stolen everything but its sequins from the show it toppled. The three judges (male, female, crotchety British guy), the voting, and, this week, the movie "theme" night. Idol once had Quentin Tarantino as a guest judge; Dancing had two contestants dress up as John Travolta and Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction. Paula Abdul—oops, I mean Carrie Ann Inaba—even told Pamela Anderson that she could be on Broadway. Excuse me? Can she sing? Idol has long been the country's biggest launching pad for semitalented Broadway stars. Then again, the producers of Hair should be thrilled to have Pam on board, too.

American Idol has been the launching pad for practically everything else in our culture, too. It hasn't just dominated the ratings and produced some of the biggest one-named pop stars in the music world (Kelly, Carrie, Daughtry, Clay) and even an Oscar winner (Jennifer Hudson). It singlehandedly transformed TV and entertainment. Survivor and Big Brother were the first reality shows to go mainstream, but when Idol premiered in 2002, nobody had considered television a multilevel platform. Beyond the series, there were the iTunes downloads and the CDs, but also the concerts that came to your hometown. (Glee is now doing a similar trapeze act.) Without American Idol, nothing about our current state of pop culture would be the same. Which brings up a more interesting point. Paula left the show last year. Simon Cowell jumps ship next month. With ratings tumbling and the current crop of contestants so lackluster, is this the beginning of the end for American Idol? If it is (gasp)—what's an America without the show?

For starters, it would be an America largely robbed of the star-is-born, overnight-sensation narrative, something that everyone from Justin Bieber to Zac Efron has exploited in the aughts. You could even argue that Barack Obama owes his ascent to the White House in part to Idol. It didn't matter how much Hillary droned on and on about experience. If Kelly Clarkson could go from serving hamburgers in a restaurant to playing at Madison Square Garden, then it really did seem that we lived in a world where anything was possible. Before we elected the first black president, we had also elected two black Idols: Fantasia Barrino and Ruben Studdard. For all the occasional grumblings about race on the show—like when four contestants of color were all sent home the same week this season—Idol proved that middle America was becoming more and more colorblind. It's still the most diverse program on TV: black, white, gay, Latino—everybody is on the same level.

As far as our national compass goes, the show helped tilt it back from the sleazy to the squeaky-clean. The '90s were about the bawdy humor of Friends and Seinfeld and Sex and the City, about Monica Lewinsky and Eyes Wide Shut. Idol made TV wholesome again, a time for families to gather together. It ushered in High School Musical and Miley Cyrus, and all the innocent kids on Glee. American Idol may also be the last show on television that really qualifies as appointment viewing. We can now TiVo and DVD everything from Lost to The View. But you really do need to watch Idol exactly when it airs. Otherwise, how are you supposed to vote?

At the same time, other reality TV got sleazier and sleazier, to the point where Idol might just not be able to compete with the likes of Jersey Shore and The Hills. When the rags tried to find dirt on the show last year, the best thing they could dig up was a lame story about how Abdul and new judge Kara DioGuardi kinda didn't like each other. This year, TMZ's big Idol scoop was that contestant Crystal Bowersox considered quitting—because she missed her son. Of course, Idol had its share of shockers in years past (contestants' legal troubles, topless Web sites, alleged fraternization with a certain female judge), but they feel pretty tame now. Dancing With the Stars has better sold into the tawdry narrative. It plucked tabloid queen Kate Gosselin as a contestant. The practice montages are edited so that it looks as if every dancer and his or her partner are having an affair. One Dancing judge even chided a contestant who began his dance in his underwear: "Why did you put your pants on?"

Of course, Idol might never disappear—like ER and All My Children, it seems destined to live for years past its prime. But starting next year, it will likely cease to be a phenomenon. Cowell made the show, and it's hard to imagine it thriving without him. Today's generation of tween, teen, and college students have watched the show for most of their lives. They have subscribed to its world view: You have to work hard for success, but not too hard. People will judge you, but it doesn't really matter what they say. The only person's opinion that matters is your own. Even when you're hurting, look at the world, smile, and say you had fun. All the world's a stage, as Shakespeare once said. Or was it Seacrest?