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J.Lo’s ‘American Idol’ Duet With Tyler Makes Fans Forget Cowell

American Idol
Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez have stemmed viewer losses at TV's most-watched show. Photographer: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

“American Idol” judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler have accomplished something their sharp-tongued predecessor Simon Cowell couldn’t do for four years: stem viewer losses at TV’s most-watched show.

With seven weeks left in the twice-weekly talent competition, “Idol” is averaging 25 million viewers a night, matching last year, according to the Los Angeles-based Fox, which has aired the show since its 2002 inception. The program has lost viewers since 2007.

The ratings suggest that after 10 seasons “Idol” may have a longer run as the most popular TV show, according to Hal Vogel, a media analyst in New York. That’s good news for Fox, which opens talks in May with marketers over the price of commercials next season. “Idol” fetches the highest ad rates for a TV series. A 30-second spot in January cost as much as $600,000, according to Nielsen Co. data.

“I’m surprised as anyone the show’s bounced back,” Vogel said in an e-mail. “The new judges appear to appeal to a wide demographic. It’s likely the show really does have more life left -- longer than I’d expected.”

Season 10 started in January with a 12 percent drop in viewers, Fox said at the time. Ratings didn’t begin to exceed the prior year’s episodes until Feb. 3, according to Nielsen data supplied by the network, part of New York-based News Corp.

Since then, new judges Lopez and Tyler have grown more comfortable on air, and the contestants have drawn higher vote totals than last season, underscoring the larger audience and higher-quality contestants, Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic programming at Fox, said in an interview.

Two Challenges

“We came into the season with two challenges,” Beckman said. “We had to reinvent the judging panel and we needed to find a stronger and more compelling and more talented group of kids than we had last year. We accomplished both.”

Besides hiring Lopez and Tyler to join returning judge Randy Jackson, producer FremantleMedia North America and 19 Entertainment, part of New York-based CKX Inc., brought on Universal Music Group for the new season and renewed the show’s focus on music. Jimmy Iovine, founder of Universal’s Interscope Records, and his producers coach contestants on the air.

The show is also running later in the week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when more people watch TV generally.

When Pia Toscano was voted off “Idol” on April 7, fans protested on Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. The day after, Toscano added 30,000 followers on Twitter and performed on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Reaction will likely intensify as more contestants depart, Beckman said.

‘Outrage Again’

“Friday morning, there will be outrage again,” Beckman predicted. “Every week moving forward we’ll tick a lot of people off, and that just shows the emotions and attachment our fans have.”

Vogel agreed. One ingredient in the success of “Idol” is to keep viewers guessing who will be eliminated next, he said.

“Fox has kept the core controversies and tensions on the show” without the biting criticism Cowell leveled, Vogel said.

News Corp., controlled by Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rupert Murdoch, rose 9 cents to $17.26 yesterday in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. Class A shares of the company have climbed 19 percent this year.

One risk for the show is that fans angered by the loss of a favorite contestant will stop watching, according to David Joyce, an analyst at Miller Tabak & Co. in New York who recommends investors buy News Corp. shares.

“With Pia voted off, ratings could drop,” Joyce said in an e-mail.

“Idol” is still losing viewers in the 18-to-49-year-old group targeted by advertisers. It’s down 7 percent compared with a 9 percent loss for all of 2010, Nielsen data show.

Playing It Safe?

The show could recover those viewers in the remaining episodes, depending on the performances of the judges and contestants, especially since audience losses accelerated in the final few weeks of last season, Beckman said.

“Do the judges tone down their criticisms? Do the contestants try to play it safe?” Beckman said. “There’s still a lot of the season left.”

The ratings may help Fox draw viewers to a year-round slate of talent shows including “So You Think You Can Dance” in May and Cowell’s “X-Factor” in September, Beckman said.

“I don’t know if Cowell’s new gig will succeed,” Vogel said. “My sense is it’s being aggressively marketed and might initially benefit from spillover curiosity factors. But I don’t think Cowell’s popularity was over-rated.”

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