American Idol was built on a sneer, a pout, an exasperated sigh and a nasal British snort.

From its inception, it was a nasty scowl -- more precisely S. Cowell -- that dominated American screens and screams.

Performers would earn his disdain, his derision and his accusation that they were mere karaoke singers who should go back to the bar they came from.

Very occasionally, though, Cowell would smile, encourage and even praise. All while making enormous amounts of money signing the best -- or rather the most marketable -- to very advantageous contracts.

Early winners included Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Others who appeared, didn't win, but still achieved considerable stardom included Jennifer Hudson.

Now it's about to be suffocated. American Idol will be no more after next season. Fox has realized it isn't going to make any more money out of a brand that isn't itself and hasn't been for a while.

You can trace it all back to Cowell's departure. He stayed on with Fox to launch The X Factor, but neither he nor Idol were ever the same again.

American Idol was a brand built on tension. People bathed in that tension. They loved and hated that tension. Most importantly, they participated in that tension.

In its heyday, one could enjoy fierce debates with otherwise sane and important people about the relative merits of lovably slim Clay Aiken and lovably large Ruben Studdard.

This wasn't just must-see TV. This was must-have-an-opinion-about-this TV. This was must-get-mad-about-last-night TV.

American Idol was about you getting angry, about you supporting one singer or another, about you trying to influence your six-year-old in her pajamas as to which way to vote. (You know that it was primarily little girls in pink pajamas who actually voted, don't you?)

When Cowell went, the brand changed strategy. It didn't try to find someone even nastier. Perhaps such a human didn't exist.

Instead, Idol went all nice. It was like someone who'd finally cast off their troublesome, pouting lover and embraced dating a promising actuary.

The new lover wasn't mean or difficult. The new lover was even quite good with numbers, but just a little dull.

All this niceness (JLo couldn't dislike anyone if she tried -- I'm not sure she did actually try, though) meant that people stopped caring. In that fierce way they used to care.

Without the tension, the brand didn't feel important.

Now viewers tolerated judge Randy Jackson's cliches of someone being "in it to win it." They smiled benignly at Steven Tyler's attempts to offer a coherence that tripped flat on its face as it passed his lips.

The brand soldiered on, soldered together by the excellent Ryan Seacrest.

It even had some good isolated moments. Arguably, when Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban joined the judging panel, the criticisms became more incisive. But American Idol was wheezing, skewered by its shunning of Cowell, its departure from anger and tension, and sucker-punched by the gimmicky format, faux tension and cooler judging faces of "The Voice."

Idol's elements of niceness -- it was sponsored by Coke, after all -- only worked when juxtaposed with Cowell's haughty dismissiveness.

Now, there was no one to get mad at, which meant it was just another talent show.

When all the judges were merely pleasant, that's what the brand became: merely pleasant.

It was a repositioning of brand image that took away what the brand actually was. Always be sure why they like you, or one day they'll leave.

In her original Idol audition, Clarkson performed beautifully, but her main thought was: "I was so happy because the British man didn't make me cry."

How do you know that the latter-day pleasant wasn't cutting it? Tell me who won American Idol last year. Don't Google it, but I'll give you six weeks to answer. 

Published on: May 11, 2015
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