When it comes to reality singing competitions, none has more clout than “American Idol.” Over its 18-plus seasons, the show has turned out numerous big names who have gone on to have long-lasting success in the music industry, including Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, and Kelly Clarkson. If you love reality TV, enjoy watching amazing vocalists, and like a bit of drama, you’re sure to love this show.

Related: Guide to “American Idol” in 2021: Season 19

This guide provides all the essential information you need to know about “American Idol.”

“American Idol”: The Basics

The first season of “American Idol” aired on Fox in 2002. After the 15th season in 2016, the show went on a hiatus for two years before returning in 2018. The revival aired on ABC. The program has won numerous accolades, from People’s Choice Awards to Critics’ Choice Television Awards and multiple Emmy nominations. Here’s an overview of the show’s format, key players, and past winners.

Show Format of “American Idol”

“American Idol” isn’t just about finding great musicians. It’s about finding people who have “It” — that star power that can propel them to fame and fortune. Appropriately, the show’s current tagline is, “There are singers, then there are idols.”

The show gives everyday people the opportunity to audition for a panel of judges. Contestants are eliminated on a weekly basis until just one is left standing — the American Idol. To qualify to audition, individuals must not have an existing agent/talent representation or a recording contract. The song contest consists of multiple stages.

Here’s a breakdown of the basic “American Idol” format:

  • Initial Auditions: Auditions are held in select cities across the United States. Thousands of people may audition in each city, with only a few hundred making it past the preliminary rounds. Successful contestants then sing in front of the show’s producers. They then get a chance to perform in front of the judges — mostly famous faces from the music industry. The judges then select anywhere from 10 to 60 contestants per city to go on to the next phase in Hollywood.
  • Hollywood Week: In Hollywood, the contestants perform again, either individually or in groups, in multiple rounds. Over the seasons, the various rounds held during Hollywood Week have varied. For example, in season 12, a Sudden Death Round was incorporated, while in season 14, a Showcase Round was incorporated, requiring contestants to perform live at a Los Angeles venue.
  • Audience Voting: After the judges have narrowed down the selection during Hollywood Week, the audience gets to have their say on who moves ahead each week. Every week, each contestant performs and the general public gets a chance to vote for them (various voting formats are available, including app, text message, and online).
  • Semi-Finals: Once the field has been narrowed further, a Semi-Final Round is held. As with Hollywood Week, the precise format of the semi-finals has varied across seasons. For example, in season 14, the top 24 semi-finalists performed at The Fillmore Detroit. In season 16, the 24 semi-finalists performed star duets with celebrity singers. In season 18, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the top 20 performed from their homes.
  • Finals: The “American Idol” finals are traditionally broadcast live from Los Angeles in front of a studio audience. Every week, the contestants are given a theme (e.g., Motown, Disney night, big band) and must perform a song that fits within that theme. Celebrity guest stars usually come onto the show to mentor the contestants at this point. Every week, the contestant with the fewest public votes is sent home. Some seasons have introduced a Judges’ Save, allowing judges to overturn the public vote to save one person. There was also a Fan Save in the past.
  • Season Finale: The finale of “American Idol” usually lasts two hours and is broadcast live from a larger venue, such as the Nokia Theater or Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles (in season 18, the show was broadcast from contestants’ homes due to COVID-19). Finalists sing and the public votes. The American Idol is then crowned at the end of the finale based on the public’s vote.

The show’s winner gets a talent management contract and a record deal with a major label. Although the exact structure of the format has varied throughout the many seasons, this is the basic premise you can expect when watching a season of “American Idol.”

Host, Judges, and Other Show Personalities

When watching “American Idol,” you’re sure to see some familiar famous faces. The show’s first season was co-hosted by comedian Brian Dunkleman and radio personality Ryan Seacrest. Since the second season, Seacrest has been the show’s only emcee (although Bobby Bones substituted for him once in April 2019 when Seacrest was sick).

The show’s lineup of judges and celebrity guest appearances has evolved over the years. Season 19 debuted on Feb. 14, 2021, and featured judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie. Season 20 is anticipated to return in early 2022 (judges lineup still to be confirmed). 

Here’s an overview of judges who’ve appeared throughout the seasons:

  • Randy Jackson: Randy Jackson is a singer and record producer who has worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Madonna. He was one of the original panel judges on the show.
  • Paula Abdul: Paula Abdul is a famed dancer, singer, and choreographer who got her big break choreographing music videos for Janet Jackson. Along with Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell, she was one of the first three judges, appearing on season one of the show.
  • Simon Cowell: Simon Cowell was one of the first three original judges on “American Idol,” along with Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. The trio was on the show together from seasons one to seven. He’s a well-known record producer and talent scout and credited with helping start famed boy band One Direction.
  • Kara DioGuardi: Kara DioGuardi is a singer-songwriter who has worked with many popular artists from Ashlee Simpson to Kelly Clarkson and Britney Spears. She was a judge on seasons eight and nine.
  • Ellen DeGeneres: Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres brought some humor as an “American Idol” judge. It’s one of the few times the show has strayed from using a music industry professional as a judge. She stayed for only one season (season nine).
  • Jennifer Lopez: Jennifer Lopez appeared as a judge on seasons 10, 11, and 13 through 15. J.Lo has a longstanding career as a successful singer and actress, having won multiple Grammys, among other awards.
  • Steven Tyler: Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler was a judge on seasons 10 and 11 of the show. He’s better known for his long-term success as a rock star, having been the singer for Aerosmith since the 1970s.
  • Mariah Carey: Mariah Carey is recognized as one of the leading vocalists of all time, making her a logical choice for an “American Idol” judge (season 12). She has won multiple Grammys, released numerous No. 1 hits, and is one of the best-selling musical artists in history.
  • Nicki Minaj: Nicki Minaj appeared as a judge on “American Idol” in season 12. The rapper, singer, and songwriter is acknowledged as one of the best-selling female artists ever.
  • Keith Urban: Country star Keith Urban appeared as a judge on seasons 12 to 15 of the show. He got his start in Australia before moving to the U.S., where he soon charted on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
  • Harry Connick Jr.: Harry Connick Jr. got his start as a mentor on the show before becoming a judge for seasons 13 through 15. He’s a renowned pianist and singer, having sold more than 28 million albums worldwide.
  • Katy Perry: The ABC revival era of “American Idol” came back with a splash, featuring pop superstar Katy Perry as one of the three judges. She’s a multi-platinum artist who first gained notoriety with her provocative single, “I Kissed a Girl.”
  • Luke Bryan: Luke Bryan was one of the judges to kick off the ABC revival era of the show, alongside Katy Perry and Lionel Richie. The American country music star has 23 No. 1 hits to his name.
  • Lionel Richie: Lionel Richie joined as a judge during the ABC revival era, along with Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. The singer and songwriter is a longstanding legend who got his start as a member of the Commodores in the 1970s.

Throughout the seasons, various temporary guest judges have come and gone, including Robin Gibb, Donna Summer, Quentin Tarantino, Gene Simmons, LL Cool J, Carola Bayer Sager, Jewel, Olivia Newton-John, Shania Twain, Neil Patrick Harris, Avril Lavigne, and Adam Lambert.

The show has also featured a revolving door of celebrity guests, who often appear to mentor the contestants in the later stages of the competition. Seeing these big names on the small screen is exciting for contestants and viewers alike. Here’s an overview of some previous celebrity guest mentors:

  • Sheryl Crow: Sheryl Crow broke onto the music scene in the mid-1990s with her singer-songwriter albums. She’s sold more than 50 million albums globally and won nine Grammys.
  • Elton John: Elton John is a household name worldwide, with more than 50 hits in the U.K. Singles and U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts. He’s won Grammys, Golden Globes, Academy Awards, and a Tony, among other accolades.
  • Usher: American R&B star Usher came to fame in the 1990s for his smooth R&B with hits like “Nice & Slow.” Since then, he’s sold millions of albums and won multiple Grammys.
  • Jimmy Iovine: Jimmy Iovine is a renowned American record executive best known as the co-founder of label Interscope Records. He’s worked with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to John Lennon, Eminem, and Tupac.
  • Adam Lambert: Adam Lambert gained fame as a runner-up in season eight of “American Idol” before returning as a mentor. He had a successful pop career, selling millions of albums worldwide.
  • Beyonce: The former Destiny’s Child frontwoman is undeniably one of the world’s biggest pop stars, male or female. She appeared on season 10.
  • Lady Gaga: Lady Gaga is another pop superstar known for her musical innovation and constant reinvention. Her debut studio album, “The Fame,” featured chart-topping hits like “Just Dance.”
  • Will.i.am: Will.i.am is known as a founding member of the Black Eyed Peas and an award-winning producer. He’s worked with everyone from Justin Bieber to Michael Jackson, Rihanna, U2, David Guetta, and more.
  • Stevie Nicks: Stevie Nicks is likely best known for her work with Fleetwood Mac, although she’s also had a thriving career as a solo artist. “Rolling Stone” magazine named her one of the 100 best songwriters of all time.
  • Miley Cyrus: Miley Cyrus got her start as a Disney Channel star on “Hannah Montana.” She’s gone on to establish herself as an adult musical artist, releasing many top-five albums and chart-toppers.

This is just a sampling of some of the big names who have appeared on the show.

Where to Stream “American Idol”

The first 15 seasons of “American Idol” were aired on Fox. However, since the reality competition’s revival, it airs on ABC. You can now watch via ABC or on Hulu. If you don’t have cable or Hulu, you can try a free 30-day Hulu subscription to test it out and see if you like it before signing up for a paid account.

“American Idol”: A Breakdown of Each Season

“American Idol” has churned out many superstars over the years. That said, some winners have seen greater success than others. In some cases, contestants who didn’t win the big prize ended up with more successful, lasting careers than their season’s winner. (Jennifer Hudson, who was eliminated in season three, is a great example of a contestant who didn’t win but still achieved stardom.)

Read on for a season-by-season recap, including past “American Idol” contestants of note (winners and runners-up). Note that there are a total of 19 seasons listed here. However, season 16 marks the start of the show’s revival on ABC. It’s thus referred to as “season one” on the ABC website.

*Spoiler Alert!* If you’re preparing to binge “American Idol” from the beginning and don’t want to know the winner for each season, skip this next section!

Season One

Pop powerhouse Kelly Clarkson was the very first “American Idol” winner. Justin Guarini was the runner-up. The two subsequently starred in a movie together, “From Justin to Kelly.” Third place went to Nikki McKibbin.

Season Two

Ruben Studdard won season two of “American Idol” and even received a Grammy nomination for his “Superstar” recording. Clay Aiken took second place, while Kimberley Locke took third.

Season Three

Fantasia Barrino was the season three winner. Diana DeGarmo was the runner-up, and Jasmine Trias came in third. However, the standout star of the season ended up being Jennifer Hudson, whose early elimination caused an uproar. Jennifer went on to have a successful career despite not winning.

Season Four

Many people don’t realize that country star Carrie Underwood actually got her start as the winner of season four of “American Idol.” Since then, she’s won multiple Grammys. Bo Bice took second place in season four, while Vonzell Solomon took third.

Season Five

Taylor Hicks was the season five winner of “American Idol.” Runner-up Katharine McPhee also had a successful career as both an actress and singer after her stint on the show. Elliott Yamin came in third this season.

Season Six

Jordin Sparks is yet another Idol alum who went on to become a household name. Her debut album went platinum. In her season, she was flanked by Blake Lewis and Melinda Doolittle, who came in second and third, respectively.

Season six also saw the “American Idol” Songwriter contest take place for the first time, which invited songwriters to submit original songs. The top 20 entries were then submitted to a public vote. Sparks then released the winning track, “This Is My Now.”

Season Seven

The grand prize in season seven went to David Cook, an American rock singer-songwriter. His self-titled debut album went platinum. Second place went to David Archuleta, and third place went to Syesha Mercado.

Season Eight

Kris Allen took first place in season eight of “American Idol.” However, it was second-place winner Adam Lambert who went on to achieve greater fame and glory (and who later returned as a mentor). Third place went to Danny Gokey.

Season Nine

Lee DeWyze won season nine of the show with his sweet and soulful performances. He first caught the judges’ attention with his performance of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Crystal Bowersox was the runner-up this season and Casey James came in third.

Season 10

Scotty McCreery was the season 10 Idol winner. His debut album featured country songs and went platinum. Second and third this season were Lauren Alaina and Haley Reinhart, respectively.

Season 11

Phillip Phillips was named the winner in season 11. He also made headlines because his coronation song “Home” became the best-selling track in the show’s history. Jessica Sanchez was second, and Joshua Ledet was third.

Season 12

Candice Glover won this season — and you can’t say she didn’t work for it! Candice had auditioned for the show three times previously before she was even cast for the live show. Her fellow contestants Kree Harrison and Angie Miller came in second and third, respectively.

Season 13

Caleb Johnson took home the grand prize in season 13. Like Candice, he likewise auditioned multiple times before making the live shows. The runner-up this season was Jena Irene and the third-place winner was Alex Preston.

Season 14

The season 14 crown went to Nick Fradiani. Fradiani had already gained some fame thanks to a stint on “America’s Got Talent.” Second place went to Clark Beckham and third went to Jax.

Season 15

Country singer Trent Harmon won the 15th season of the show — the last before it went on a two-year hiatus. The runner-up this season was La’Porsha Renae and the third-place winner was Dalton Rapattoni.

Season 16 (“Season One”)

The ABC revival era kicked off with what was technically the 16th season of the show but is often referred to as “season one” since it was the first season to air on ABC. Maddie Poppe won the season, while Caleb Lee Hutchinson was the runner-up. Third place went to Gabby Barrett.

Season 17 (“Season Two”)

Laine Hardy took first in season 17 (otherwise known as “season two” of the revival). The Louisiana native followed up his win with a 13-date tour. Alejandro Aranda took second and Madison VanDenburg took third.

Season 18 (“Season Three”)

Just Sam, also known as Samantha Diaz, was crowned America’s idol in season 19 — or season three of the revival. Arthur Gunn took second, having been voted back in during the comeback round. The season was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with contestants being sent home and taping being resumed via home performances.

Season 19 (“Season Four”)

The most recent season of “American Idol” was likewise impacted by COVID-19. For the first time, the show offered live viral auditions to aspiring performers (using Zoom). First place went to Chayce Beckham, while Willie Spence was the runner-up and Grace Kinstler took third.

“American Idol” FAQs

Whether you’re a first-time “American Idol” watcher or a seasoned viewer, you may have some unanswered queries about the show. It’s understandable given that it’s been around for more than 18 seasons and features an evolving roster of contestants, judges, and guests. The frequently asked questions (FAQs) below can help provide clarity.

Who Were the Most Recent “American Idol” Winners?

The most recent season of “American Idol” began airing on Feb. 14, 2021 (season 19). Chayce Beckham was crowned the winner, Willie Spence was the runner-up, and Grace Kinstler came in third.

What Time Is “American Idol” on?

In 2021, “American Idol” aired at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) on Sunday evenings on ABC. You can likely expect a similar schedule for the 2022 season.

When Do New Seasons of “American Idol” Start?

The next season of “American Idol” is expected to air in spring 2022. The judges’ panel has yet to be confirmed. Look out for more information about the next season of the show on ABC.

How Do You Vote on “American Idol?”

You can vote via text message, the American Idol app, or online. For voting details, check out idolvote.abc.com.

Get All the Latest Updates on “American Idol” From BuddyTV

American Idol” has enjoyed long-standing success, even being revived after a short off-air period due to fan demand. With more than a dozen seasons and countless superstar winners, the reality singing show remains a favorite in America. If you want to join in the fun, you’re sure to find plenty of people to enjoy watching the show with. You can stay on top of future “American Idol” seasons and news with BuddyTV.

Heather Reinblatt

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV