Why 'American Idol' Rebuffed Fox for ABC

"They got divorced," says one insider of the reboot talks that began with NBC and ended with hopes for a boost at Disney's flagging broadcast network. Next task: judges.
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Seacrest is considered likely to return to the rebooted 'Idol.'

On the eve of the upfronts, American Idol is again the obsession in TV. Negotiations over Fox's retired hit wrapped May 8 with ABC agreeing to revive it for the 2017-18 season — a deal insiders credit to the Disney network's eleventh-hour push and the persistence of FremantleMedia CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz. "Six months ago, no one wanted it," notes one agent. "If there was one person who made this happen, it's Cecile. She was determined to get Idol back on TV."

The Idol owner's motivation to reboot its crown jewel (shared with CORE Media Group's 19 Entertainment) is clear. But the appeal to broadcast networks also makes sense. Even in its fatigued 15th and final season, Idol averaged a 3.0 rating among adults 18-to-49 and 11.5 million viewers on Fox. (In the key demo, only seven nonsports series are pulling better numbers this season.) So when word of early talks between Fremantle and NBC leaked in February (conspicuously timed to The Voice contract negotiations), Fox was also in the mix. For Fremantle execs still burned by the cancellation, however, Fox was not considered a desirable option. "They got divorced," notes an insider. "You don't get remarried one year later."

Idol's prospects cooled until ABC made a strong offer in early April following exploratory discussions prompted by the threat of a writers strike. An ABC-resurrected Idol, even with a modest portion of its past audience, would help the No. 4 network fight for NBC's reality crown — joining the reliable Bachelor franchise and Dancing With the Stars. It's also a potential Band-Aid for the network's recent woes; all but one of ABC chief Channing Dungey's first crop of hourlong entries this season, Designated Survivor, were DOA.

The big wild card now is talent. Former Idol host Ryan Seacrest is considered likely to return despite having taken a full-time gig in New York as Kelly Ripa's co-host on (Disney-owned) Live! But will he get the $15 million he made on Fox? Likely not. Untenable talent costs led to the show's initial demise. Pricey past judges Simon Cowell and Jennifer Lopez, both on NBC now, are said to be out. Agencies are pitching fresh judge talent, with sources saying that ABC hopeful it can reveal a shiny new roster as soon as its May 16 Lincoln Center presentation to ad buyers.

This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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