'American Idol' Returns: Mariah, Minaj and a Make-or-Break Moment

 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 11, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"There's something a little more romantic about Mariah Carey shouting, 'You're going to Hollywood!,' than Nicki Minaj going, 'You made it to Northridge!' "

So cracks American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, yet here they are, on Dec. 12, deep in the suburban no-man's-land of the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles from Grauman's Theatre, the Walk of Fame or any semblance of Hollywood glamour, except, of course, for the music giants taking their seats at the Valley Performing Arts Center: multiplatinum R&B hitmaker Carey, hip-hop artist Minaj and country star Keith Urban -- new additions for season 12 alongside the sole original judge, Randy Jackson, who also recently started co-managing Carey, with Irving Azoff. (Recounts Jackson: "We were talking about it one day, and she said, 'Dude, would you help me?' And I was like, 'I guess that might work.' ")

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Everybody knows that television is the land of make-believe, and thus, this is what's called "Hollywood Week," Idol's coveted and simultaneously dreaded six-day boot camp where 279 hopefuls are put through the vocal ringer, then paraded in front of the panel of judges. This year's slogan: "Others dream, Idol delivers."

"For the record," pauses Lythgoe, who came to the valley this time for a day of boys' group auditions, "we have taken the contestants around Hollywood." No doubt the cameras were rolling.

Perception is tantamount in the world of Idol, which notched an impressive 10 straight seasons as America's No. 1 show -- and Fox's crowning achievement -- but has seen ratings decline by as much as 25 percent in the past two years, even with such high-profile talent as Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler occupying the judges' chairs (at the hefty reported price of $15 million and $10 million, respectively). The Idol franchise still is worth an estimated $8 billion, while the U.S. version averaged 17.2 million viewers an episode with a 30-second ad commanding north of $340,000 in 2012, second only to NBC's Sunday Night Football, yet it can't seem to shake the nagging stigma that it's on the way out or, worse yet, already irrelevant.

Not helping matters: a weak programming slate for Fox, which will use Glee in the post-Idol slot Thursday nights, and the fact that a newcomer like NBC's The Voice, which averaged 12 million viewers during its most recent season, is treading ever more closely to Idol's numbers, especially among younger viewers. (The X Factor seems, for the most part, to be a nonstarter, drawing an audience of about 8.7 million an episode.) Indeed, Idol's decline in dominance has been worldwide, as all three formats are competing against one another in dozens of territories.

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To combat that has-been appearance, the Idol producers are taking their biggest gamble yet and have recruited a group of judges that feels like a powder keg. Make that one that already has exploded, when the panel's two resident divas let grace go by the wayside back in October, launching into the sort of expletive-filled verbal catfight you'd expect to see on an episode of Real Housewives, not the most popular, most wholesome show in America.

You could point to any number of factors contributing to Idol's audience erosion. There's the oversaturation of the talent-show format: NBC has The Voice and America's Got Talent; Fox is home to Idol and X Factor; even ABC tried its hand with Duets, featuring original Idol Kelly Clarkson along with John Legend, Robin Thicke and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, as did The CW with its fledgling series The Next. On top of that, there's the natural aging of its audience (the average Idol viewer is 48) and its more than occasionally hokey theme weeks (for example: the perennial "Song From the Year You Were Born" night) and sappy scripts. Producers CORE Media (formerly CKX, which bought 19 Entertainment in 2005 for $210 million) and FremantleMedia -- along with creator Simon Fuller and fellow executive producers Lythgoe and Ken Warwick -- might even agree with all of these points, so long as you don't deny that the show has produced stars.

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"It's the biggest and certainly the most meaningful of the shows," defends Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative programming and the executive who gave the first greenlight to American Idol, then an offshoot of the Fuller-created British Pop Idol, in 2002. "It's the one that started it all. It has an elegance and simplicity to it. But ultimately, the fact that people can still become stars proves that Idol is head and shoulders above the others. This show has engagement, and it's engagement that creates stars.

Indeed, in spite of several high-profile underperformers (among the more memorable blunders: season one's Justin Guarini and season nine's Lee DeWyze), Idol's track record is on par with that of a well-resourced major label. About one out of every 10 acts signed becomes a hit (to compare, neither The Voice nor X Factor has seen a single contestant's song enter the top 20 of Billboard's Hot 100, and its winners, which include Javier Colon and Jermaine Paul, have all but disappeared from the field; ditto for X Factor, which has seen only one album, an EP by third-placer Chris Rene, released by a finalist). To date, Idol alums have amassed 371 No. 1s on the Billboard charts. Idol's biggest successes: season-one victor Clarkson and season four's Carrie Underwood, who have combined sales of 22 million albums. Even some of the nonwinners have thrived: the oft-cited Jennifer Hudson, who came in seventh on season three but won an Oscar for Dreamgirls in 2007, Chris Daughtry, who has notched sales of 7 million albums, and season-five runner-up Katharine McPhee, who stars on NBC's Smash.

Idol's latest rags-to-riches fairy tale? Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, whose single "Home," used as the U.S. women's gymnastics team's unofficial theme song during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, is now No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with sales of more than 2.8 million tracks, according to his label, Interscope. His debut album, The World From the Side of the Moon, released in November, has sold 377,073 copies.

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Following a platinum-certified debut by season 10 winner and country crooner Scotty McCreery, Phillips' success is the product of a realignment on the music side that clearly is working, with Interscope Geffen A&M chairman and in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine providing the artist development as the series progresses. With Universal Music handling distribution and marketing, the show, more than ever, offers a legitimate launchpad to insta-success. "Idol changed drastically when Jimmy came on," says the show's longtime arranger and associate musical director Michael Orland. "In the old days, it was like musical jump rope where the contestants would do a different style every week. Inevitably, everybody had at least one horrible performance. Jimmy said, 'Let's get these people to sing who they are.' "

For years, the Idol brain trust of Darnell, Lythgoe, Warwick, Fuller and Fremantle's Cecile Frot-Coutaz (since promoted from running North American operations to CEO of Fremantle worldwide and succeeded in the U.S. by Trish Kinane, who readily admits, "There are a lot of voices in this show, but it works") had insisted that the show's real draw were the contestants, not the judges, who have minimal contact with the finalists and aren't given a vote past the audition rounds. Says Darnell: "If we have a bad year in talent, no matter how good the judges are, it won't work. So ultimately, the audience is coming and staying for the contestants."

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But it seems that as the seasons have passed, so has the reliance on talent alone as a draw. At its launch, the show featured unknown judges save for a then career-stagnant Paula Abdul. Today, the focus is squarely on the high-powered panelists (season two's Clay Aiken recently said so, telling Billboard, "I don't even know if they remember there are contestants anymore"), who aren't critiquing scores of would-be pop stars solely out of the goodness of their hearts but looking to further their brands and promote their own projects in tandem. (Even Iovine jumped on the bandwagon with his high-end audio line Beats By Dr. Dre, whose headphones and speakers are featured prominently on the show.)

And the panel is being paid handsomely for it, with Carey, 43, earning a salary of $18 million, according to sources, Minaj pocketing $12 million, and less for Urban and Jackson. Somewhat shockingly, Darnell insists that despite the divas' extra handlers, glam-squad members and security detail, the show's production costs, which THR has estimated run in the vicinity of $2 million an episode, have not increased. Still, the hefty sums (which include host Ryan Seacrest's $15 million-a-year deal) don't always pay off. For every Christina Aguilera -- a bargain at $12 million a year for The Voice -- you have a one-term fail like Idol's Ellen DeGeneres, or a Lopez or X Factor's Britney Spears, the latter two who commanded $15 million but ultimately added little flavor or value to an already-stagnant TV formula. (Although it should be noted that Lopez helped stabilize ratings at first with an initial uptick: The show averaged 24.2 million viewers in January 2011, her first season as judge; compared with season nine's average -- 22.9 million -- season 10's numbers were flat.) In the case of pop star Spears, people didn't even tune in to watch the muted train wreck.

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On the other hand, the exposure can do wonders for a career that's waning or an artist coming off of a long leave. Says Carey, who's finishing her 11th album with plans to launch it during Idol: "This show is such a massive, popular entity, it does help people promote their music, and at the end of the day, that's the most important thing. … But this is a big departure for me because, for the most part, either I had nothing or I was my own boss."

All three newcomers say they had to be "convinced" to join Idol. New Zealand-born Urban, 45, a handsome, one-season judge on Australia's The Voice who's married to Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman, had a been-there-done-that attitude toward the TV-judging shtick. But in the end, he decided he had wisdom left to share. "I like helping artists get rid of the cheesy crap around them that they haven't yet figured out they don't need," he says. "I wish I had more of that. I had to learn a lot of it myself."

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