Why ‘Idol’ is Golden

Feb 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

What goes up eventually has to come down, right?

Apparently not when it comes to Fox’s “American idol.”

The blockbuster talent competition show seemed to be at the top of its ratings game last season, when it was No. 1 in adults 18 to 49 and propelled Fox to the top spot among the networks in the demo.

But now-in the first few weeks of its fifth season-“Idol” has been enjoying double-digit growth compared with its ratings performances last season, eclipsing virtually all of its competition in nearly every demographic from teens to adults 50-plus.

“Idol’s” unusual success story has confounded industry insiders and even the top executives behind the show, including Mike Darnell, Fox’s senior VP of specials and alternative programming.

The reason “Idol” remains such a growing success is somewhat elusive, said Mr. Darnell, who deemed the query “an almost unanswerable question.”

That’s because there is no one single reason why the show works, but rather an impossible-to-duplicate confluence of elements.

A series of factors-from scheduling to execution to talent to audience participation to wish fulfillment to the pure entertainment value of the show-all complement one another in a way that makes “Idol” a true TV phenomenon.

One of the more obvious factors is “Idol’s” uniqueness among reality series as a show that holds a legitimate and tangible reward for its winner. Paired with Fox’s disciplined scheduling approach-running “Idol” only once a year, with no repeats-the show’s freshness with viewers plus the six-month-long anticipation for its return help make “Idol” more of a television event.

A summer series that was modeled after the United Kingdom’s successful “Pop Idol,” “American Idol” premiered in the U.S. in June 2002, with ratings and buzz building through the Sept. 4, 2002, finale, when Kelly Clarkson was crowned the winner of the first “Idol.”

Executives at Fox, then run by Gail Berman, knew they had a big hit, but “there were internal discussions of when do we do this next,” said Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research for the network. One debate considered the pros and cons of bringing it back in the fourth quarter of 2002, he said.

Mr. Beckman said there was “a universal agreement among executives here at great risk to our jobs” to not harm what appeared to be an enduring franchise. Plus, there was already a network cautionary tale.

“The biggest lesson we learned is ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'” Mr. Beckman said, referring to ABC’s surprise 1999 summer game show hit that started with huge ratings but declined rapidly in the course of one season after the network began running it several times a week.

“We were aware how quickly these phenomena burn out,” he said, pointing to more recent examples of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” which had two versions this past fall and suffered ratings declines, and ABC’s “The Bachelor,” which was running three times per season before ABC held the series for the fall and pulled back the number of installments.

“The best way to let that not happen was not to abuse it,” Mr. Beckman said.

“Idol” returned in January 2003 for a second season, culminating in its highest ratings ever with its second season finale May 21, when Ruben Studdard was crowned the winner of the second “Idol.”

Airing only one “American Idol” cycle per season has helped protect the series, Mr. Darnell said.

“You don’t want two Miss Americas in one year; you don’t want two ‘Idols’ a year,” he said, noting that not having the show on the air for the majority of the season allows it to refresh and build momentum for the next cycle.

“If it’s a big enough show and people want it bad enough, they will wait,” he said.

Authentic Idols

Over time, the show’s proven power to find true talent has contributed to a level of integrity and legitimacy viewers have come to trust, further driving their interest in watching and participating in voting during the next “Idol,” said Steve Smooke, a TV agent at Creative Artists Agency, which packages the show and represents “Idol” producer 19 Entertainment, plus a number of past “Idol” contestants, including Ms. Clarkson.

“America has recognized this show as a completely legitimate talent competition,” Mr. Smooke said. “The winner is not a fluke.”

Take the show’s inaugural winner, Kelly Clarkson. Over 2 million copies of her first album, 2003’s “Thankful,” were sold in one month. Just last week Ms. Clarkson won two Grammy Awards, including a best female pop performance award for her track “Since You’ve Been Gone” from her multi-platinum album “Breakaway,” beating out competitors Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow and Gwen Stefani.

Past “Idol” winners Mr. Studdard and Fantasia Barrino have gone on to record albums, while “Idol’s” most recent winner, Carrie Underwood, held the top spot on the country record charts for five consecutive weeks with her debut album “Some Hearts.” Some “Idol” finalists who didn’t win have gone on to successful careers too, with second season runner-up Clay Aiken becoming a one-man recording and live concert industry. Third-season top 12 finalist Jennifer Hudson was recently tapped to star in the upcoming feature film adaptation of the musical “Dreamgirls,” in which she will co-star with Beyoncé and Jamie Foxx.

This is in stark contrast to winners of other reality series, who have not necessarily lived up to their initial hype, Mr. Darnell said.

“That guy is not really doing much for [Donald] Trump,” Mr. Darnell said, noting that the multiple past winners of Mr. Trump’s series “The Apprentice” haven’t gained much notoriety in the business world.

Another plus is the exposure and promotion the show naturally gains from attention to its contestants.

Even if “Idol’s” stars don’t make much mention of the show after they move on to bigger careers, the media and fans make the connection on their own since “Idol” is how they first became aware of the performers. In Ms. Clarkson’s case, the fact that she made no mention of “Idol” in her Grammy acceptance speeches may have gone even further toward promoting the show as shocked viewers discussed the exclusion at water coolers and newspapers printed stories featuring her backstage responses to why she left “Idol” out.

Peak Performances

Contestants’ success after “Idol” helps the show, agreed John Ferriter, senior VP and head of network alternative packaging for the William Morris Agency, noting that in the first season “people who were singers in real bands, they didn’t enter the competition. Now they are going to enter the competition because they see stars being named.”

In addition, better talent on “Idol” has increased the entertainment value and the excitement of competition for the audience.

The talent factor also translates over to the judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul and host Ryan Seacrest, Mr. Ferriter added. “Idol” has all the successful elements of a soap opera or telenovela, he said.

“It’s wish fulfillment,” said Mr. Ferriter, who reps Mr. Seacrest. “They have to get by the evil, wicked persona in Simon Cowell. He is perfectly cast for what he does. Paula and Randy fulfill their roles. They are the conscience of America. And Ryan is the perfect foil, helping to facilitate while [contestants’] dreams come true.”

Success also breeds success, said Greg Lipstone, senior VP for the talent agency International Creative Management.

Increasing audiences are created by “sheer tonnage,” he said. “People hear about the show and they want to tune in.”

As an aside, Mr. Lipstone noted his children have discovered the show this season, which means he and his wife now watch “Idol” regularly.

The show is so strong it has been able to survive controversy along the way, from phone voting mishaps to embarrassing discoveries about some contestants’ past criminal behavior to allegations that Ms. Abdul engaged
in an inappropriate relationship with “Idol” hopeful Corey Clark.

Fox and “Idol” producers have handled controversies well, said Lisa Quan, VP and associate director of broadcast research for Magna Global, both by addressing things such as phone number errors and past criminal records directly on the show and by taking a more tactical approach with Ms. Abdul’s alleged relationship problem.

“They didn’t talk about it at all inside the program,” Ms. Quan said, “but the network supported her outside the program.”

Lee Gabler, a partner at CAA, said all the cylinders are firing correctly for “Idol,” something rare in a television show. That bodes well for future success.

“Americans in general are rooting for the underdog,” Mr. Gabler said. “The fact that the show has audiences in all regions of the country kind of gets a rooting interest building before the show is broadcast. The production value that 19 [Entertainment] and [executive producer] Simon Fuller and Fremantle bring to the show is phenomenal. The man that everybody loves to hate, Simon Cowell, adds a lot of spice.

“Fox gets behind it and promotes it and does everything they need to do. Kelly Clarkson is a merit badge for the show. If you take all of those things and put them into a pot, it’s a great recipe for continued success.”

‘American Idol’ Keeps Growing Throughout Five Seasons Chart 1

‘American Idol’ Keeps Growing Throughout Five Seasons Chart 2