In Depth

Fox Plays Up ‘Idol’ Emotion

With New Season, New Marketing Vibe

Fox is thinking small in its efforts to promote the biggest show on television.

It’s not that the network is scaling back the breadth of its campaign for “American Idol,” the beyond-adjectives reality juggernaut that has kept it No. 1 in key ratings for the past four seasons. From relentless on-air spots to shopping mall takeovers, Fox is readying a marketing push the size of Simon Cowell’s ego to make sure viewers know “Idol” will return on Jan. 13.

The network even recruited reigning “Idol” champ David Cook to headline an on-air promo, marking the first time a past contestant has been used to market a new season of the show.

But after playing up the notion of “Idol” contestants as outsized personalities in last year’s pre-launch promotional campaign, Fox marketing chief Joe Earley has decided to scale things back for season eight.

The changes to the marketing, which come in the wake of a 9% decline in “Idol’s” ratings in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic last season, are in part a reflection of some of the expected tweaks to “Idol” next season, Mr. Earley explained.

“The show is more real, it’s back to its roots,” he said. “It doesn’t have a veneer.”

Mike Darnell, Fox’s president of alternative programming, said it’s too soon to offer specifics about the changes in the works. He did say, however, that “Idol” would be “more intimate” and “more raw” than last year.

“It’s going back to letting the kids be more emotional and seeing more of their reality,” he said. “We’re going to allow the public to see a little more of their emotional state.”

Overall, he said there “are subtle changes and there are bigger-than-subtle changes. But I wouldn’t call anything ‘radical.’”

Two significant shifts already announced include the addition of fourth judge Kara DioGuardi and the departure of longtime showrunner Nigel Lythgoe.

Mr. Darnell said that on a scale of one to 10, his excitement level regarding the tweaks to the show ranks at an 8.

“And I’m a 9 when it comes to the talent,” he added. “We just got done with Hollywood Week, and the talent and the characters we have are the best since season five.”

To fit with the more intimate feel of “Idol,” the marketing for the 2009 model of the show will be more down-to-earth, although Mr. Earley said the network will be spending a little bit more than it did last year.

“Last year, we had contestants reaching a level of perceived stardom much earlier, both in the show and in our marketing campaign,” Mr. Earley said. “We made them look great; the concept was that they had arrived. But looking back, we think that maybe it was too soon to have them arrive. This year, we wanted to make sure we started out with real people.”

Gone, then, are the images of Godzilla-sized generic “Idol” contestants Fox used last year to push the idea that the show created overnight celebrities. Instead, look for print ads that speak to the notion that the next “American Idol” could be anyone—a waitress, a cowboy, a single mom.

“We’re putting our models (in the print campaign) in the real world,” Mr. Earley said. “The hope is to convey that within all these everyday people there is an ‘Idol.’ It takes it to a more relatable place.”

Last year’s ads were accompanied by the tagline “Dream Big,” a phrase that played off the outsized show. The motto for “Idol” this season is the more grassroots-themed “Share Your Voice.”

Mr. Earley said Fox is hoping that slogan—and the marketing that surrounds it—will match the post-election zeitgeist in the country.

“It would be reaching to say we’re trying to tie into the election itself,” he cautioned. “But what we are tapping into is what we’ve just been through and the mood of the culture and the state of our economy. We’ve been through a lot of divisiveness lately, and our message is, ‘It’s time to stop arguing and fighting, to all pull together.’ And the most important message in the on-air campaign is that ‘American Idol’ is an event that brings us all together.”

Mr. Earley said Fox’s on-air spots will “show the range of emotions” that contestants go through during the “Idol” audition process.

“There’s pure celebratory joy ... but the heartache is there, too, the anger of the people who don’t move forward,” he said. “When I watch these spots, even though I’m a cynical television executive who has seen more of the ‘Idol’ process than viewers, I get chills. I’m not exaggerating. You get excited that this journey is back again.”

As for the spot featuring Mr. Cook, Mr. Earley said the ad begins with the singer about to go on-stage to perform his new single, “Light on.” He begins recalling how his “Idol” voyage began, with viewers seeing clips from Mr. Cook’s appearances on the show. “He then steps on-stage, and when he starts singing, you get that rush,” Mr. Earley said.

Mr. Cook spent a whole day shooting the spots for Fox, which began running the promotions over the Thanksgiving weekend. The benefit for Mr. Cook, of course, is promotion for his new album, which was released Nov. 18.

“We’re looking at doing some spots with some other past ‘Idol’ contestants,” Mr. Earley said.

Building Up

Fox’s promotional push for “Idol” will continue to build throughout the holidays. In addition to plenty of on-air, look for the network to aggressively go after the “Idol” audience where they’ll be spending a lot of time during the next month: shopping malls.

The network will dominate kiosk advertising in a number of big-city shopping centers. In addition, several malls will feature an interactive advertisement that will allow shoppers to take a picture of themselves as an “Idol” contestant.

“I love that anyone who’s in the mall can put themselves in one of our ads,” Mr. Earley said.

Also, Fox is teaming with its stations in major markets on a promotion designed to reinforce the feel-good nature of the show.

“Because a lot of the media buys are in malls, we’re doing promotions where ‘American Idol’ and the stations will be giving people gift cards for the holidays,” Mr. Earley revealed. He also said the network would once again “do a ton of radio” advertising, and that AmericanIdol.com—which is not owned by Fox—would also play a key part in touting the show’s relaunch.

Between weekly Paula Abdul crises and endless debate about the quality of each year’s contestants, “American Idol” would seem to be the show that promotes itself, making Mr. Earley’s job relatively easy. But whatever built-in advantages the network has when it comes to hyping the series are more than balanced by the pressure of keeping the show a dominant force in the ratings—and the pop culture.

“It’s imperative that we continue to have the biggest show on television,” Mr. Earley said, fully aware that it’s “Idol’s” supersized ratings performance that has propelled Fox to first place in the Nielsens for the past four years. “We have never taken it for granted.”

Mr. Earley closely coordinates the marketing and publicity efforts for “Idol,” ensuring that both are in sync as Jan. 13 approaches. The spot featuring Mr. Cook, for example, was scheduled to premiere on an entertainment newsmagazine before it popped up on TVWeek.com and then began airing on the network.

And while there will be no shortage of free media reminding audiences of “Idol’s” return, Mr. Earley makes sure not to overlook the smallest details. He insists that every spot include the date and time “Idol” premieres. For the mall ads, “It’s important that from far away, you can see that the ad is for ‘American Idol’ and that the show is back.

“We’re conscientious about every detail,” he said. “When you’re in season eight of a show, you don’t take anything for granted. We need to make sure people know that, OK, we’ve been away—but now it’s ‘Idol’ time.”