Fox Retools ‘Idol’ in Bid for Second Resurrection of Show

“American Idol,” Fox TV’s aging ratings powerhouse, will undergo a “creative reinvigoration” next season that will determine whether the show’s almost nine-year run as the most-watched series comes to an end.

“Right now, there’s a battle for first place,” said Steven Piluso, chief strategy officer at PHD, an ad-buying unit of New York-based advertising company Omnicom Media Group. “‘Idol’ has slipped enough that any one of the other shows could become the winner a year from now.”

Even with audience losses, “Idol” heads into the final weeks of the season, its 11th, as the most-watched series among all viewers and the 18-to-49-year-olds advertisers prize. The show generated $730.6 million in ad spending for Fox last year, according to Kantar Media, or 15 percent of parent News Corp.’s TV revenue. A 30 percent drop in young adult viewers this year leaves no clear leader in the reality field, Piluso said.

“The producers know what happened this year,” Kevin Reilly, Fox’s entertainment president, said yesterday on a conference call, promising a “creative reinvigoration” without providing details of how the show will be retooled. “There’ll be some changes,” he said.

The network is considering rule tweaks that give judges an expanded role, as well as aesthetic changes, such as set designs, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who sought anonymity because the matter is private.

Changing Reality

The reality-TV landscape has changed since “American Idol” made its Fox debut in 2002. The network can no longer rely on the program to carry audiences when new shows fail to bring in viewers, sometimes called a tentpole property.

“There was a time when ‘Idol’ could have single-handedly done the job,” Reilly said. “We’re not a one-show deal.” Fox is focused on strengthening its full lineup year round, he said.

Fox charges as much as $602,000 for a 30-second commercial on “Idol,” according to Nielsen data. The network’s average ad price is $247,500, according to Nielsen data supplied by Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media, a New York advertising company.

As of last week, the Wednesday-night edition of “Idol” was attracting an average of 8 million viewers in the young-adult demographic this season. Just behind was “The Voice,” the year-old talent show from Comcast Corp.’s NBC, at 7.9 million younger viewers per night.

Part of the reason for the falloff among younger viewers on “Idol” may be the makeup of the judges, according to Lyle Schwartz, managing director of GroupM, a media-buying arm of London-based WPP Plc, the world’s largest advertising company.

“If you put them side by side -- the skew of demographics of ‘Idol’ stars versus ‘Voice’ stars -- you’ll see why one may appeal to a different audience,” Schwartz said.

Age Gap

The judges on “American Idol” include Steven Tyler, 64. His band Aerosmith released its first single, “Dream On,” in 1973, before “The Voice” stars Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green, were born. Both are in their 30s.

Among total viewers, the Wednesday edition of “Idol” draws a nightly audience of 19.8 million, compared with 19.4 million for “NCIS,” the CBS Corp. Tuesday crime drama. “Idol” Thursday attracts 18.5 million viewers and “Dancing With the Stars” from Walt Disney Co.’s ABC attracts 18.4 million viewers on Mondays.

News Corp., based in New York, fell 1 percent to $19.93 at the close in New York. The Class A stock has gained 12 percent this year, ranking ninth in the 16-stock S&P 500 Media Index, led by Scripps Networks Interactive, up 26 percent.

New Faces

Fox and the producers of “Idol,” including CKX Inc. and FremantleMedia North America, have revived the show in the past when audience trends suggested the program’s reign was over. In 2011, ratings rose for the first time in four years.

Several changes have involved new faces. Ellen DeGeneres joined the show for a single season as a judge in 2010, replacing Paula Abdul. Last year, DeGeneres was gone, along with Kara DioGuardi, and the show lost the caustic Simon Cowell to Fox’s “The X Factor.” They were replaced by Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, who helped increase the audience last year.

“Idol” also saw a renewed focus on music in 2011, with the producers turning to record executive Jimmy Iovine to work with the contestants in a bid to improve the quality of the performances.

“It’s extremely unlikely the show will grow significantly again,” said Todd Gordon, managing director of MagnaGlobal, a media-buying agency at New York-based Interpublic Group of Cos. “But it’s reasonable to expect they’ll find a way to regain some of that younger demographic.”

Chance for Gains

At upfront meetings with advertisers yesterday, Fox announced that “X Factor,” a sister talent program that’s also produced by FremantleMedia, will bring on pop stars Britney Spears and Demi Lovato as celebrity judges this fall. The show will air on Wednesday and Thursday nights, giving viewers a late-week alternative to “The Voice.”

NBC has a lot riding on “The Voice.” At his presentation to advertisers yesterday, NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt said the success of the show has made it the “cornerstone” of the network’s future programming.

“We have no illusion, however, that it’ll bring down all the other singing contests out there,” Greenblatt said.

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