The first talent auditions for the ninth season of the Fox juggernaut "American Idol" are still two weeks away, but there is already a beauty contest going on behind the scenes.
Negotiations on a new contract for Simon Cowell, the show's linchpin, chief prosecutor and animating force, are progressing quickly and could be concluded as early as this week. Cowell, who currently makes about $36 million annually and still has another year on his pact, is looking at a new multiyear deal that would boost his pay to the $45-million range, people close to the talks said.
Cowell's push for more money comes on the heels of host Ryan Seacrest's new contract, which pays him $30 million over three years to host plus $15 million for merchandising rights to his image. Co-judge and pop diva Paula Abdul is also seeking a hefty increase in pay, although it's unclear whether she will be able to wrangle the kind of raises won by her colleagues.
Costly renewal contracts are not uncommon for the stars of hit sitcoms and dramas, where the fate of a series often rests with an actor or actress who has legions of fans that would abandon the show if their idol did not return. But the high-stakes poker game over pay currently underway with the judges of "American Idol," a talent show that has soared to popularity in the reality TV boom, points up the paucity of giant hits in an era when few network series attract broad swaths of the viewing public.
"There are fewer and fewer of these shows," said Brent Poer, senior vice president at MediaVest USA, which buys TV commercial time for clients such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. " 'American Idol' is one of the last bastions of appointment viewing. For advertisers, it shows there is still a show that can generate water cooler talk."
Such singular status makes "American Idol" a cash cow for Fox, which airs it twice each week and uses the outsize viewership to promote the network's other shows, turning it into an audience-generating machine.
Although ratings and advertising revenue for "American Idol" have declined in recent years, it is still the most-watched show on television and commands the second-highest rates from advertisers. (The Super Bowl is No. 1.) In the most recent season, the program averaged 26.6 million viewers per episode, and advertisers shelled out more than $700,000 for a 30-second commercial, TNS Media Intelligence said. Overall, "American Idol" took in almost $850 million in advertising revenue last season, more than any other television show, despite the weak economy.
But as good as that is, it's not as good as it used to be. In 2008, "American Idol" generated $903.3 million in advertising. The show is a co-production of 19 Entertainment Ltd., the British production and talent management firm owned by CKX Inc., and the TV company FremantleMedia, a unit of German media giant Bertelsmann.
The current round of negotiations with talent points to a long-standing issue in the television business: Lucrative employment contracts are frequently reached after the show has peaked in the ratings and in advertising, reducing profit margins in a program's later years as the costs rise while the revenue falls. But networks and producers are loath to risk losing talent, which could devalue the show even faster and lead to a premature cancellation.
Although Cowell's current contract does not expire until next season, Fox is committed to "American Idol" for two more years, so the network would prefer to lock him in now. Renowned for brutally frank critiques of contestants' talent ("There are only so many words I can drag out of my vocabulary to say how awful that was," he told one auditioning contestant), the British-born and tight-black-T-shirt clad Cowell is a key ingredient in the show's popularity -- and could be difficult to replace.
Finding a judge to take Cowell's place "would really be a challenge," TV historian Tim Brooks said. He said "American Idol" could probably survive if it lost Abdul or judges Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi -- but not Cowell.
A complicating factor in Cowell's contract negotiations is "X-Factor," another musical talent program overseas that he hosts and would like to land on the U.S. network. As part of any new agreement for "American Idol," Cowell could try to leverage a long-term commitment out of Fox to put "X-Factor" on the air.
A representative for Cowell declined to comment.
Although Cowell's deal is moving along smoothly, negotiations with Abdul have crashed. Abdul, who has become as well-known for occasional erratic behavior on and off the set -- she's notorious for rambling appraisals of contestants' performances -- has gone public with her displeasure about the talks. Abdul's current annual salary is around $4 million, people close to the show say, and she wants to be higher on the food chain than Seacrest and initially asked for as much as $20 million, although that has since come down to $12 million.
Last week, an offer was made to Abdul's manager David Sonenberg, and he passed, people involved in the talks said. Sonenberg did not respond to requests for comment. Earlier this month, he told The Times that Fox had been "rude and disrespectful" in their handling of the talks.
Fremantle 19 and Fox representatives declined to comment about Abdul's contract talks. But Nigel Lythgoe, an original executive producer of "American Idol," said he didn't think it would be a fatal blow to the show if Abdul did walk.
"First and foremost, 'Idol' is stronger than any individual on it," he said.
Times staff writer Richard Rushfield contributed to this report.