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11 Seasons On, Why 'American Idol' Keeps Us Coming Back

Why does the no-gimmick show continue to bring back loyal viewers? The answer is simple.

American Idol season 11 judges Savannah L
Michael Becker / FOX

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it -- but maybe tweak it just a little. That’s long been the mantra at American Idol, where the Fox program has remained the country’s No. 1 show pretty much since its inception in 2002. And even with regular updates to the look of things, from styling the contestants to the production value and stage, the basic formula has remained essentially the same: star-struck hopeful faces a table of seasoned judges, takes a deep breath and sings his or her little heart out -- usually with a boat swaying in the background.

So for the season 11 opener, Idol leaned on its legacy, reminding the millions of viewers tuning in that today’s 16-year-old contestant was aware and ambitious enough at age 6 to appreciate Kelly Clarkson’s victory. It’s the reason these thousands are trying to see a dream come true in the place where they’re made: an arena, followed by a spruced up hotel banquet room.

“It’s like an icon of American society,” said one such auditioner among the cattle call crowd. OK, so some were more eloquent than others, but point taken: X Factor, The Voice, The Sing-Off, America’s Got Talent -- all these talent shows can come and go, but there is only one original, or as Idol executive producer Ken Warwick likes to call it, “the gold standard.”

Indeed, Idol curiously doesn’t seem to need the bells and whistles that sometimes overwhelm the other shows, be it spinning chairs, pyro or dancers, and it’s because the show has always been about its characters, even when they’re less than enthralling as story lines or personalities. As for those horrendous trainwreck try-outs? There were hardly any during Wednesday’s premiere and I, for one, can’t say they were missed all that much.

So what is it about “this cheesy show,” to quote tireless Idol blogger MJ Santilli, that keeps us coming back? Is it like an addiction we can’t shake? Are we all still peering and praying for the next Adam Lambert or David Cook? Is there some subliminal messaging going on in judge Steven Tyler’s purple paisley prints?

Hardly: it’s the simplicity of it all and the true love of music. With nary an accompaniment or a moody setting, there are those precious few hopefuls who, in 30 seconds, will have Jennifer Lopez grooving along and Steven Tyler making that face. It’s because the judges remain true lovers of music, which is a trait they share with not only the auditioner, but the kind of person who tunes into a show like Idol and takes its purpose -- to find the next superstar -- seriously.

Are the judges too nice? Generally, yes. Few, if any, music business executives would be as concerned with going easy on an artist they see as having no future, but maybe that’s where the judges’ dreams come in, a way to re-do an early career rejection and spare the heartache. As host Ryan Seacrest said best in one of the season opener’s voiceovers: “Never stop believing in yourself, because we’ll never stop believing in you.”

Do you believe in Idol? Why do you keep tuning in?

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin