‘Idol’ Still Rocking in Wake of ABC Exposé

May 9, 2005  •  Post A Comment

While racking up an unusual amount of media interest and record ratings, last Wednesday’s one-hour ABC special “primetime>live: Fallen Idol,” which featured allegations that “American Idol” judge Paula Abdul and a former contestant had an inappropriate relationship, appeared to do little to shake the industry’s confidence in the overall viability of the Fox show. Rather, it could even bolster “Idol,” some said.

For now, two of “Idol’s” top sponsors, Coca-Cola and Ford, are sticking with the show. Coca-Cola, which won’t enter into negotiations over its sponsorship for next season until the current “Idol” season ends, endorsed the idea of Fox investigating the matter. Dan Bedore, a spokesman for Ford, said Thursday that his company sees “Idol” as a “fantastic property,” and that the ABC report didn’t change that.

Industry insiders said last week that the high-profile fracas actually represents an opportunity for Fox and “Idol’s” producers to promote and even grow the show, perhaps by recasting Ms. Abdul’s role.

Bruce Goerlich, executive VP and director of strategic resources for Zenith Media, said all the attention coming “Idol’s” way certainly is not bound to damage the series.

“It makes me think of the Oscar Wilde quote, `The only thing worse in the world than being talked about is not being talked about,”‘ he said. “I don’t really see this hurting the franchise. Whatever they do, whether they keep Paula or replace her, it stirs interest.”

Fox said it has started investigating the charges, but as of late last week, no results of the investigation or changes to the show had been revealed. Ms. Abdul was still slated as of last Friday to appear as usual on Tuesday’s edition of “Idol.”

Ms. Abdul released a statement Friday afternoon offering her “deepest appreciation to the thousands of people throughout the world who have written, e-mailed and called to express their support.”

Her statement did not directly address the accusations of Corey Clark, the contestant, apparently on principle. “All my life, I have been taught to take the high road and never to dignify salacious or false accusations,” the statement said. “And I have been taught never, never to lie. Not only do I never lie, I never respond to lies, no matter how vicious, no matter how hurtful.”

Ms. Abdul’s camp apparently has taken Mr. Clark’s allegations as a personal attack: “I do trust my fans who can see through attempts at character assassination, and I do trust the essential fairness of the American public,” the statement said.

“American Idol” is one of Fox’s most important shows in prime time. A pop culture juggernaut currently in its fourth season, it dominates its time period in both young and old demos and has been held up by the often edgy Fox as a great example of its ability to provide true family entertainment. More important, the show has been a ratings savior, pulling Fox out of fourth place in the adults 18 to 49 ratings race in January and propelling the network to the No. 1 position in the demo for the season.

When word leaked last month that ABC News was working on a potentially explosive report on the show, something of a media circus emerged. Print outlets, TV entertainment newsmagazines and Web sites buzzed with speculation the report would include allegations by a former “American Idol” contestant that he had an intimate sexual relationship with Ms. Abdul and secretly received professional advice from her while appearing on the Fox musical competition show.

The May 4 ABC special indeed featured a one-hour interview with Corey Clark, a contestant on the second season of “Idol” in 2003 who made it to the live, on-air finals only to be disqualified after it was revealed he did not disclose to show producers that he had been charged with assault and resisting arrest in Kansas. .

The controversy over Mr. Clark’s interview, further proof of interest in “Idol,” paid off handsomely for ABC, which garnered 13.7 million viewers for the 10 p.m. (ET) “Fallen Idol” telecast, giving the network its first-ever victory against original episodes of CBS’s “CSI: NY” and NBC’s “Law & Order,” according to Nielsen Media Research. The ABC show also beat its competition in all adult demos. In adults 18 to 49, “Fallen Idol” scored a 6.1, a 144 percent improvement over the season time period average.

While Mr. Clark’s accusations are among a handful of incidents “Idol” already has endured, Karen Coleman, senior VP, media director and broadcast investment group director for the media buying agency StarLink, said advertisers and viewers are accustomed to controversy when it comes to reality shows. “Idol’s” previous public snafus include the removal of a contestant for appearing on a soft-core porn Web site and allegations the phone-in voting system is not accurate.

“People are coming to expect some type of drama associated with `American Idol,”‘ Ms. Coleman said. She also said advertisers aren’t likely to jump ship until they see something more definitive than an interview with a former contestant.

“I don’t think there’s enough information to drive advertisers away,” she said.

Susan McDermott, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Co., said her company supports Fox’s interest in further investigating the matter.

“At this point, all of this is he said, she said, rumor and speculation,” Ms. McDermott said, adding that the company renegotiates with Fox every year to take part in “Idol” but has not begun talks on sponsoring another season. She refused to say whether Coca-Cola viewed Ms. Abdul as an important part of “Idol,” but expressed confidence in the show.

“It’s a good show, and we have had a really good relationship with Fox, and it’s added value to our brand,” she said. “We look forward to continuing to work with them this season.”

Ford’s Mr. Bedore added last Thursday, “We’re really able to get our products in front of the right people in the right venues, and I don’t think anything has changed with regard to some of the stuff that came out on that special last night.”

Chris Coelen, head of the alternative talent department at the United Talent Agency, said the show’s format, in which viewers call in to vote for their favorite singer during the final rounds, with judges acting only as commentators, clearly works with viewers. Even questioning Ms. Abdul’s objectivity, he said, doesn’t change the dynamic of viewers being in control of who is ultimately named the next American Idol.

The day before Mr. Clark’s interview aired Fox released a statement addressed to ABC News questioning Mr. Clark’s reasons for agreeing to discuss the show. The statement also asserted “Idol” producers and the show’s production companies FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment never received any complaints from Mr. Clark about Ms. Abdul while he was on the show.

“We will, of course, look into any evidence of improper conduct we receive,” the Fox statement said. “In the meantime, we recommend that the public carefully examine Mr. Clark’s motives, given his apparent desire to exploit his previous involvement with `American Idol’ for profit and publicity.”

The day after the ABC special, Fox and the “Idol” production companies released another statement, saying they had asked Mr. Clark to give more detail on his allegations for their investigation into the alleged incidents, but that he had refused to cooperate. The statement said the interview was filled with “rumor, speculation and assertions from a disqualified contestant who admitted during the special to telling lies.” The statement did not include any mention of Ms. Abdul.

John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast operations for Campbell Mithun, said it is unlikely Fox will alter “Idol” in any way for its current run, which finishes at the end of May sweeps, but Ms. Abdul’s future on the show could be uncertain if Fox decides her continuing involvement tarnishes “Idol.” Any change, he said, could in the long run help grow “Idol.”

“Nothing will happen for the remainder of the competition, but Fox will need to protect their franchise and ensure the integrity of the competition,” Mr. Rash said.

Jon Lafay
ette contributed to this report.