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As Coke Exits American Idol After 13 Seasons, an Iconic Show's Future Looks Grim

Viewership is a fraction of its 2006 prime

Since American Idol's earliest seasons, Coke has been an advertising fixture. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/WireImage for Fox Television Network via Getty Images

If American Idol was in rough shape before (which it was), it's looking at an even bleaker future now that Coca-Cola has publicly said it won't be supporting the reality show's 14th season.

Yes, that means no more red-and-white cups in front of the judges on what was once the biggest competition series on television. American Idol returns to Fox on Jan. 7.

"After 13 years, we feel it is the right time for the Coca-Cola brand to venture into new spaces and pursue other opportunities to connect with teens and leverage music as a passion point," the beverage company told Variety, and the statement's existence in itself is saying something. It's very rare for advertisers to publicly cut ties to a show that hasn't offended somebody.

Fox quickly followed up Adweek's request for comment with a statement signed by both companies:"Coca-Cola and Fox have mutually decided to end their 13-year American Idol partnership. We look forward to working together on new collaborations in the future."

For their part, viewers are more or less boycotting American Idol out of boredom these days; the show's Wednesday ratings were down 31.6 percent among 18-49-year-olds last season. On Thursdays, it was off by more than a third. As Variety notes, the network is bleeding money from this show, with big spenders like Ford pulling back significantly. (Fox confirms that Ford will return for Season 14 in some capacity, though.)

Of course, it's not as though Idol was going to last forever, anyway. The show was a huge earner for more than a decade and ought to be allowed to ride off into the sunset with dignity.

It was a surprise hit when it premiered in 2002, with 38 million people tuning into its Season 1 finale (Fox even won sweeps that May, too, largely because of Idol). At its peak in 2006, the show averaged 31.2 million viewers per episode and—don't cry, network executives—an astounding 12 share among 18-49-year-olds.

But its last few years of ratings have seen steady declines. Over the course of last season, it dropped from 15.2 million viewers and a 4.7 rating in its premiere to 6.6 million and a 1.7 rating. Attempts to replace it have gone badly awry, this season and last, and generally speaking viewers are migrating away from reality television and back toward scripted shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and How to Get Away With Murder—expensive shows, in fact. To counter the trend, Fox debuted a new unscripted show with every possible bell and whistle this year—Utopia—and it went over like a lead balloon.

This isn't a Fox-only problem. Reality TV is losing its hold on viewers across multiple networks, many of them cable channels with a much greater reliance on unscripted programming. Top 10 cable network History was off by 24 percent this summer when cable programming traditionally does the best. Fellow chart-topper Discovery was down 15—and those weren't even the worst off.

But Coke's unstated statement is pretty blunt: Young people who like music aren't watching broadcast anymore. They're watching YouTube, living on mobile, playing video games and tuning into a select few traditional TV networks. It's an evolution in which everyone is struggling to adapt, and while Coke and Fox seem to be parting ways on this specific program, they're definitely still in the same boat: trying to find the future before it passes them by. 

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