This Thursday, at the Dolby Theater, the fifteenth American Idol will be announced and then the show goes away…at least for the moment. That’s about forty hours of programming FOX will have to come up with and, honestly, if you play the odds, the new hours will not deliver a 2.0 L+SD rating in 18-49’s and the hours might not be a whole lot cheaper. But that’s Fox’s dilemma to deal with. I don’t work there anymore. I did for fifteen years and for most of that time American Idol was a big part of my professional life.
I started at FOX in June 2000 and in September of 2001 the world changed. I will always believe that the events of September 11 had a lot to do with why American Idol resonated with the viewers. It’s not like there hadn’t been any talent shows on the networks prior to Idol. I still remember telling my daughter about it and she stared at me and said “Dad, that’s Pop Stars” which was a little show on the WB. She did not seem all that excited.
Rupert Murdoch was excited about Pop Idol, which was a big hit in England. His daughter Liz sold him on it and Rupert told Sandy Grushow, Gail Berman and Mike Darnell, the FOX Entertainment chiefs and our head of reality, we were buying it. Rupert told them they needed to make it as big as it was in England. We were all skeptical.
My first involvement with the show was a meeting in Sandy’s office with Simon Fuller and possibly Cecile Frout Coutaz from Freemantle. To Sandy Grushow’s credit, he insisted that we would not do the show unless Simon Cowell would be one of the judges. We had seen Cowell’s antics on the British version and, since this was FOX, we needed someone who would give the show an edge. We continued to be skeptical. I remember in January of 2002 being at a meeting with Rupert where Mike Darnell was going over the show and our “plans” to change the format. Rupert was not happy and told Mike, in no uncertain terms, to keep the format as it was. I think the term ‘you Americans” was used at some point as Rupert was pounding the desk.
Well we did stick to the British format but with one exception. Sometime in the early spring I got a call from Mike to come down to his office there was a problem. When I arrived Simon Fuller, Nigel Lythgoe and possibly Cecile and Ken Warwick were there. Ken and Nigel were the Idol executive producers. Since Idol was a competition show based on viewer voting they suddenly realized that the US has four time zones (five if you include Hawaii) and that Idol could not replicate the British formula of voting and then returning to the air later in the evening to report the results. Mike and I had to explain the difference between network and affiliate time and all the issues involved with that. We played around with different solutions such as excluding the West Coast from participating in the voting. Finally, I threw out the idea of a second show that would air the night following the voting. I suggested a half hour results show and, since Idol was coming on in the summer, and I was the head of scheduling, I was certain that I could figure out how to get it on the schedule. Of course there was a money issue with the additional hours but Mike and I pitched this to Gail and Sandy and they agreed that we needed to include the whole country in this show. My moment in TV history.
As the auditions began we started to get nervous that no one would show up. My daughter was in high school and, when the auditions were in LA I gave her flyers to put all over her school. We were desperate. We announced a schedule for Idol and started to promote the show with scenes from the auditions. The promos mostly focused on Cowell eviscerating young auditioners, often well deserved. It was the classic way FOX promoted most of its product. We were never big on heart. At some point Mike gave me rough cuts of the auditions and I brought them home to share with my family. We were amazed at how moving several of the auditions were. One would never know it from the promos. I told Mike and Sandy that there was another sell to this show that pushed the emotions. Not everyone wanted to see innocent young singers being ‘bullied” by this Brit. We added some emotional spots and I would like to believe that helped us to broaden out the potential Idol audience.
Idol premiered June 11, 2002 and the wild ride started. The initial numbers were good but not where we felt that we had a phenomenon on our hands. The auditions AND Hollywood lasted a week. After what we called the Middle Rounds and a Wild Card show we were down to ten Finalists and, within eight weeks we were done. The whole show was twenty-two and a half hours. I knew we were in good shape when I heard Kelly Clarkson sing. She was everything you could hope for in a show that was asking America to pick a singing superstar. The key to reality TV is authenticity, which is the first thing to leave these shows. Kelly, Ruben and Clay, Fantasia and Carrie Underwood. We were fortunate to start off this phenomenon with authentic unknowns. Like many of these shows, at some point it all starts to feel manufactured.
Anyway, the ratings kept building and building and we realized we had something very special on our hands. About half way through the finals I was vacationing in Maui and I ran into Gail Berman who was there with her family. We high-fived each other and went out for a celebratory dinner. We both knew that, as exciting as this all was, the hard work was ahead of us. We saw what happened over at ABC with ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and we knew that we had to quickly figure out a plan for making this show part of our schedule for years to come.
After some debate we decided to run Idol once a year and bring it back in January 2013 and make that the permanent start to the Idol season. We expanded to thirty-six hours plus a few specials. We knew we had gold in the auditions so we added several hours to that part of the show. We went to twelve finalists and expanded several of the results shows to an hour. We took some shit from the other networks for expanding the show but, of course, once they found success with this format, they immediately added additional hours to their shows.
We were anxious to see what the second season of Idol would do. It’s one thing to have a summer success but now we were moving the show into the season against big time competition. I remember Mike Gail and I talking about having a pajama party at the office the night of the Idol premiere so we would all be together for the overnights. We didn’t but I came to the office early the morning after the premiere and there was Gail. The numbers stunned us.
We stayed around thirty-seven hours for the next two seasons but made a significant change to the format in Season 4 when we made the middle round of the show a “Boy/Girl Round”. We wanted to insure an even splint between the sexes. This move was in response to the strength of the women singers in Season 3 when, if I remember correctly, five of the final six singers were women. To do this shift correctly we needed more hours but, of course, with success comes conflict. We could not make the deal for more hours of Idol so we needed to tape the middle round. This resulted in one of our first crises as we put the wrong phone numbers on the contestants. Several of us spent a long night at the office as we figured out what to do about it. Although we were often criticized for ‘fixing’ the show I can tell you we never did, we wound up repeating the performance the following night with the correct numbers on the screen. That’s when I realized we needed a phone tree.
Season 4 of Idol was memorable in several ways. We had our biggest Idol success story in Carrie Underwood. We started our run as the #1 network in the 18-49 demographic. We added House to the schedule, which was the most successful scripted series to ever benefit from an American Idol lead-in. Finally, that year we moved 24 to Monday night and aired it without interruption through its season run. We called that the ‘shock and awe” part of our schedule. Sunday (often leading out of an NFL playoff game) and Monday four hours of 24 and then Tuesday and Wednesday four hours of American Idol auditions. Wherever we ranked season-to-date among the broadcast nets that changed pretty quickly.
What all the networks find when they have a mega-hit is that it’s hard to launch other hits behind it. We were fortunate to have House. Bernie Mac worked behind Idol but we quickly opted to give The OC the Idol push. Idol had a strong African-American audience for a lot of its run and The OC was one of the most vanilla shows on our schedule. Bones of course benefitted from the Idol rub and had the added benefit of being a show that we owned. To be honest what worked best behind Idol were other reality shows that commanded a lower cpm (cost per thousand) than scripted entertainment. Bottom line: we were not much better than the other networks at taking advantage of a smash hit to launch other hits.
We were now on a roll. For me Season 5 was the best season ever. We had the first of a run of mediocre winners but Season 5 had the deepest bench of Idols both in terms of talent and character. We also hit upon the right format, extending the hours of auditions and sticking with the boy/girl middle round. With several behind-the-scenes issues resolved we were able to do the boy/girl rounds right for the next three seasons.
For me Season 8 was the pivotal year for American Idol. The ratings were starting to decline so there was a feeling among the powers that be that we needed to shake things up…and we did. We eliminated the boy/girl round of 24 and went back to a final 36 where groups of 12 contestants performed over three weeks. We added a fourth judge in Kara Dioguardi thus telling the world Paula Abdul’s days were numbered. After years of resistance on our part we added the judge’s save to the show. We negotiated with the producers as to how deep into the show the save could be used and we made sure that they stuck to it. Finally, the auditions, which were the highest rated part of the show, were taking on a nasty tone and the ratings were reflecting it.
We did a content analysis on the auditions dividing the segments into “good auditions” “bad auditions” and “delusional auditions” the last category being contestants who think they’re good enough to be on Idol but are ignorant as to how bad they are. We found that the percent of the auditions that could be categorized as “bad auditions”, people who the producers knew were awful but might either be entertaining or fodder for the judges abuse, was growing and was close to sixty percent of the show. I discussed this with Mike Darnell and we shifted the mix back to better auditions. We saw an uptick in the ratings but, to be honest, it was too late to turn the show around.
For several years I would do a long and extensive research presentation to the core group of producers and Fox execs that would gather after the season ended. I would start every year with a chart showing the life cycle of the big reality shows on all the networks. It was inevitable that all these series, successful as they were, would start to decline. I would tell my colleagues that we had a choice. We can either let Idol crash and burn or bring it in for a soft landing. To be honest I think we did a bit more of the former and less of the later.
In 2014 when Idol brought in a new Executive Producer I sent him, at his request, an essay that I called “Death By a Thousand Cuts”. My thesis was that there was no significant event that caused Idol to go into freefall but, rather, it was the result of several small decisions, which combined led to the +20% declines over several seasons.
Was there a moment when this all could have ended differently? Yes, it was when we delayed the launch of X Factor by a year after we planned the transition of Cowell from Idol to X Factor. That gave NBC the opening to introduce The Voice that was more akin to X Factor than to American Idol. This also kept Cowell off the air for over a year. That was not the plan. Once Idol was not THE singing competition but one of three well….
But let me end this by celebrating all that the people of FOX and its partners accomplished for over a decade. We created the Death Star but I honestly believed we kept level heads during this moment in the history of the business.
For me what I miss more than everything about the Idol years are the 5:30 AM calls that Mike Darnell and I had during virtually the entire run of the show. Research reported to me and I would ask to get the preliminary ratings fifteen minutes before they were released to a somewhat larger group. I would send them to Mike and, within a minute, my phone would ring and we were off on one of our long conversations about the numbers, Idol, the business and life in general. I will always cherish those calls.