YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Star power can't lift 'American Idol,' but it's still a win for Fox

Despite new judges Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Keith Urban, ratings keep falling amid a crowded singing field. Even so, 'Idol' is still a money-maker for Fox.

March 26, 2013|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • "American Idol" judges Keith Urban, left, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey.
"American Idol" judges Keith Urban, left, Nicki Minaj, Randy… (Frank Micelotta / Fox )

The producers at "American Idol" wanted to shore up a dramatic slide in ratings for the show's newest season, so they added three star judges and even allowed viewers to vote online for favorites up to 50 times simultaneously.

The changes for the 12th season didn't help. Ratings have plummeted by double digits for the second year in a row, down this season by 18%, to 15.8 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. In its fifth season in 2006, "Idol's" average audience was more than twice as large. And the declines are just as bad among viewers ages 18 to 49, the demographic that advertisers crave most.

"'Idol's' sort of run its life as being at the top of the heap," said Steve Smith, a partner at the Dallas-based ad agency Firehouse.

PHOTOS: 'American Idol' judges through the years

Analysts blame the decline on a variety of factors, including audiences tiring of the concept after more than a decade, a constantly rotating panel of judges and a glut of rival singing shows.

Whatever the reasons, the comedown has serious implications for Fox.

For eight straight seasons, the News Corp.-owned network has been No. 1 with viewers 18 to 49, a feat almost entirely attributable to "Idol." For advertisers, "Idol" became the most expensive on TV, with 30-second commercials running more than $700,000 during Season 7. Even with ratings falling last year, the show grossed more than $800 million in ad revenue alone, according to Kantar Media.

Perhaps more important, for the past decade "Idol" has proved that, in the face of stiff competition from online media and cable niche series, broadcasters can still gather a weekly audience of tens of millions with the right product. It found a high-profile rival in NBC's "The Voice" — which returned Monday after a lengthy hiatus, with new judges Shakira and Usher joining Adam Levine and Blake Shelton — as well as Fox's own "The X Factor" with Simon Cowell, formerly the star of "Idol," which airs in the fall.

But in February executives at News Corp. reported that lower ratings at "Idol" and "X Factor" are hurting the bottom line, and the picture for the former has darkened since then. "We have had a very disappointing year, ratings-wise," News Corp. Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey told analysts.

The network is scrambling to put the best face on the situation.

"At these current [ratings] levels, obviously we're going to be on for a very, very long time," said Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative programming. He called the declines "fully expected."

PHOTOS: 'American Idol' - Where are they now?

The addition of Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Keith Urban as judges this year "proved that you can take what has become an institution and revamp it," he said, adding that audiences are simply beginning to tire of singing shows. "There's just a glut and everything's suffering."

Analysts agree that audiences have entered a state of singing-show fatigue. But Fox has compounded that problem by devoting huge chunks of its fall and spring schedules to singing contests that share the same lineage. "X Factor" stars Cowell, the former standout judge on "Idol." The programs are so similar that litigation between Cowell and "Idol" creator Simon Fuller over the issue dates back nearly 10 years.

NBC's Paul Telegdy, who oversees "The Voice," scoffed at the notion of a glut.

"We do not lie awake with that show in our targets in any way," Telegdy said. "I don't care if it beats us. 'The Voice' dances to the rhythm of its own drummer."

With ratings ebbing, "Idol" has been swept up into a horse race over celebrity judges, with each singing show trying to outdo the other with star firepower. And now Fox is beginning to see the downside of that approach.

Fremantle Media, which produces "Idol," handed Carey a paycheck worth a reported $18 million, making her one of the highest-paid people on TV even though she had never been on a series before and her ability to deliver viewers was untested. "X Factor" paid Britney Spears $15 million last fall for a performance that was almost universally panned as drab and tentative — and the star nevertheless demanded a raise in contract renewal talks, reports said. She won't be back next year.

"Britney Spears on 'X Factor' brought nothing other than her fame," said Yahoo Music managing editor Lyndsey Parker, who writes a blog about music reality shows.

Of course, those salaries pale in comparison to that of Cowell, who according to Forbes was making at least $45 million per year in his final years on "Idol." But some of the recent "Idol" judges have been remarkably well-paid considering their performance.

PHOTOS: 'American Idol' judges through the years

Los Angeles Times Articles