With the sixth season of “American Idol” breaking ratings records, Fox plans to use the powerhouse reality show to pump up its schedule across the board.
The network intends to air at least 45 hours of “Idol”-matching and possibly exceeding the hours logged in the 2006 season, which were the most the network had ever aired. Fox also will use the seemingly unstoppable talent show to help debut its new David E. Kelley drama, boost ratings for a struggling sitcom and possibly launch other new shows.
Mr. Kelley’s upcoming drama “The Wedding Bells” will premiere March 7 following one of several Wednesday night “American Idol” results shows before moving to its Friday 9 p.m. slot. The Brad Garrett sitcom `”Til Death” will move from Thursdays at 8 p.m. to Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. starting March 14 in order to follow the regular Wednesday night “Idol” results show.
“We plan on using `Idol’ to give “Til Death’ a second wind; it’s been in a really tough time period,” said Preston Beckman, executive VP for strategic program planning at Fox. “We also will have a few Thursday night `Idol’ results shows. We’re hoping to use those three results shows to get sampling for the new shows, one of which will be `Wedding Bells.’ You can’t buy the kind of eyeballs you get with an `Idol’ lead-in.”
Rivals often accuse Fox of adding as many “Idol” hours as necessary to win first place. “Idol” has indeed added more hours over the years. The first season in 2002 ran 1,350 minutes, according to Nielsen Media Research and Fox. By season three, that total had jumped to 2,701 minutes. Season four dipped down to 2,440 before bouncing back up to 2,714 last year.
Though Fox closely guards its “Idol” scheduling plans, Mr. Beckman said the network will unleash as many hours as it did last year-if not more.
“Last year we all sat down and came up with 45 hours, which we didn’t feel abused the show,” he said. “This year we feel it will be at least 45, but it may be marginally longer.”
Fox executives bristle, however, at competitors’ accusations that they have over-milked their cash cow.
“[Rivals] say we put on as many hours as we need,” Mr. Beckman said. “NBC’s `Deal or No Deal’ will go over 70 hours. Every network uses their top shows to maximize their performance, and I don’t understand why we’re held to a different standard. God forbid any other network had this show.”
“American Idol” premiered Tuesday to a record-setting 15.7 rating among adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research. Even more stunning was its Wednesday performance, which retained 99 percent of its premiere audience and represented an 18 percent increase over the same performance last year.
Few inside Fox thought “Idol” would retain its power this season. At 5 a.m. the morning after the “Idol” premiere, Mr. Beckman, Fox President of Alternative Programming Mike Darnell and Entertainment President Peter Liguori were all wide awake, checking their BlackBerrys and calling each other, shocked, as the numbers rolled in.
“You know I like the word `relieved,”‘ Mr. Beckman said. “Every year we say, `Can this be the year we see [`Idol’] decline?’ Yet this show surprises us every year.”
This year Fox had no intention of resting on its “Idol” laurels and prepared a spring slate of new dramas, trying to find new scripted shows that might keep viewers on the network when “Idol” isn’t running. Fox has suffered when “Idol” isn’t on the air; the network this season ranked in its typical last place among the major broadcast networks coming out of the fourth quarter before “Idol” returned.
In addition to “Bells,” there’s also the racing drama “Drive,” starring Nathan Fillion (“Firefly”). That show will air Mondays at 8 p.m. starting in April. This week the network also announced “When Women Rule the World,” a Fox-style reality series, where in order to win, men must perform as slaves to a group of women.
But since “Idol” has returned stronger than ever, Fox is in the enviable position of having the best of both worlds: New shows plus a ratings sledgehammer to drive them home.
“You have to take full advantage of `Idol,”‘ Mr. Beckman said. “[But] we weren’t counting on it this year.”
At the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour last week, competitors were dismayed by the “Idol” numbers and executives kept using the term “Death Star” to describe its power. The term was apt. The show not only drew a huge audience, but decimated the competition.
Kelly Kahl, VP of programming operations at CBS, expressed confidence that some CBS programs can withstand the “Idol” onslaught. The procedural drama “NCIS,” which draws an older audience than “Idol,” held up fairly well against the show’s premiere.
“[We’re] not `Idol’-proof but `Idol’-resistant,” Mr. Kahl said of the “Death Star.” “Our shows hang in there okay, while the other shows get, uh, vaporized.”
NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said “Idol” might still lose power mid-season.
“We got to see how it weathers over the course of the year,” he said. “Maybe they’ll have a bad run. Nothing burns that bright forever. Some day it will be uncool to watch `American Idol.”‘