Anatomy of a hit: 'American Idol'
As television's force of nature, 'Idol' would like to teach the world to sing -- and the entertainment industry how to survive.Trying to explain a juggernaut like Fox's "American Idol" is enough to drive executives to distraction. Trying to ensure its continued success -- that apparently requires a massage.
At least it does for Fox head of alternative programming Mike Darnell. For several years, Darnell has spent "Idol's" premiere night at the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena. It started out as a convenience (he was there for a press tour already) and has turned into a talisman. And when he gets a massage, the show's ratings go up.
"I'm very superstitious," Darnell says. "This year, I had no reason to be there, but I drove all the way to Pasadena because I wanted the premiere to do well."
It's as good a reason as any for the reign of "Idol" over virtually everything else currently on broadcast television or cable. "Idol" has competitors cowering in its wake (NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker has said it's "the most impactful show in television history") and advertisers clamoring to get a toehold. From its inception, "Idol" has had the Coca-Cola Co. and Ford Motor Co. as sponsors and after 200 episodes can boast returns in the form of platinum record sales, Grammy victors and even a bona-fide Oscar winner in Jennifer Hudson. Its January premiere brought in its highest ratings ever, with 37 million viewers tuning in to see who will become its next success story. And two of its executive producers -- Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick -- have been tapped to produce this year's Emmy Awards.
But the answers behind how all of the show's success happened have little to do with superstition and all to do with the mechanics of running a TV show in the 21st century. Like no other program, "Idol" has it down to a science.
"The secret is that there is no secret," says Warwick, who, along with 19 Television president Lythgoe, takes care of "Idol's" day-to-day operations.
"The show is the culmination of something that's been building since 2000, which is the return of event TV," says Tim Brooks, a TV historian and executive vp research at Lifetime. "What they have done is take a well-established familiar genre with basic appeal and give it a whole new packaging."
Lythgoe echoes that opinion. "We've repackaged the American dream and brought it back to this country," he says.
'American' family values
Show creator and 19 Entertainment president Simon Fuller, however, sees success as more than just packaging. To him, the key ingredient to "Idol's" success is in the team he's assembled, particularly the three judges (Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul) and host (Ryan Seacrest); and his production crew of Lythgoe, Warwick and FremantleMedia North America (19's partner) CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz, who, as one of "Idol's" executive producers, handles the business side of the operations.
"I have final say, but everyone feels a part of it," Fuller says. "That's what makes it a family. It's pretty cool how it works."
In TV years, this family has been together an eternity. Fuller's 19 Entertainment group has been around since 1985, and his earliest successes came from managing Annie Lennox and the Spice Girls. In the late 1990s, he came up with the idea of a televised talent competition for singers, which debuted as "Pop Idol" in England in 2001. Quickly, it became clear that the concept could be exported, and "American Idol" debuted as a summer replacement show on Fox in June 2002. Almost immediately it was must-see, water-cooler television, racking up ratings unheard-of on broadcast television since cable and the Internet began draining away viewership. Season 2 gave Fox its highest ratings ever for a nonsporting event, and the show has not faltered with viewers since.
Internally, however, has been another matter. Fuller's family at 19 and FMNA have wrestled with kerfluffles and mild scandals almost since the show's inception -- everything from the press calling judge Cowell's critiques "mean" to allegations that Abdul had an affair with a contestant. But the biggest rift came when, in 2004, Cowell created a talent search show called "The 'X' Factor" for British television, and Fuller claimed the "Factor" format was too close to "Idol's."
"I always viewed that first season as we were all in it together," remembers Cowell, who served as a "Pop Idol" judge and makes a point of indicating he was part of the early developmental meetings for the British show. "We came over here, we were a team at that point, we didn't know whether it was going to succeed, and it was the getting there that was exciting. But once you're up there, it gets political, and people fall out."
Recalls Fuller: "There was a moment where it all looked like it was going a bit sour. When you have such a huge success, there's a lot of people fighting for glory and their share of the spoils. That's the least fun bit of it."
Copyrighting of formats was a subject that intrigued the judicial system, but it never got beyond initial hearings -- at the end of 2005, Fuller and Cowell reached a settlement in England. "'X' Factor" remains on the air, co-produced by a division of FremantleMedia and Cowell's SYCOtv, and Cowell remains at the "American Idol" judging table with a multiyear deal.
But Cowell is hardly the only "Idol" participant to use the show as a jumping-off point for other ventures; doors have opened for nearly every principal. Fuller has Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance," now about to begin its third season, and an upcoming HBO show based on the English series "Little Britain." In addition to producing the Emmys, Lythgoe and Warwick will appear in their own reality show for Fox Reality about a vineyard the pair purchased called "Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes."
Notes Seacrest, who since "Idol" took off has taken over the national radio show "American Top 40," among other hosting and music-related jobs: "All of us on the show have looked at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's not enough for any of us to sit back and just do this. We've all got other businesses; this fuels those businesses and allows us to capitalize in other ways."
Frot-Coutez also has seen a boost in responsibility since the show debuted; she now handles all of FMNA, which means she oversees a half-dozen shows, including the CBS game show "The Price Is Right." "There are lots of companies, agendas, egos and disputes, and it's hard to keep everyone working as a team," she allows.
Keeping everyone onboard and happy is really Fuller's job now, and he takes his duties as head of the family seriously. "Everyone wants to capitalize on the moment, but there's only so much one human can do. The fact is, I think everyone knows (on) which side of the bread is buttered."
Mess with success
Keeping "Idol" fresh does mean knowing who writes the paychecks, but it also requires constant tinkering -- with some changes more apparent than others. Although the show was going strong in its first three seasons, a major change for Season 4 was -- as most everyone associated with the show agrees -- in order. The pacing of the show slowed after audition rounds, and some round-winning contestants wouldn't be seen for weeks as the numbers were cut to the final 12 contenders.
That was a waste of time, remembers Lythgoe, who says: "The biggest thing about 'Idol' is that you care about the people. So, we did a major swing around."
For Season 4, the format was changed to its current boy-girl sets of 12 finalists, with two getting the boot each week until the group was halved. The new setup allows audiences to grow more attached, more quickly, to individual contestants.
But not everyone thought this was a good idea at first. Lythgoe says they had to fight Fox to fiddle with the format.
Now, says Darnell, the network appreciates the adjustment:
"People are bonding quicker with the show."
Since the change, Fox has let "Idol's" creators tweak the show as they see fit, even if it makes the executives anxious. "Every time you wake up to a rating that's not a 30, you're tempted (to intervene)," Fox Entertainment president Peter Liguori says. But, he adds: "There's nothing I can think of that I want to change. The minor adjustments come from the creators. They have a tremendous grasp of the show."
Other adjustments have been minor, but they have had a tremendous impact on the show. Season 2 had producers bringing on musical guests to widen the selection of songs -- and, hopefully, the show's demographics. This year, the song base will stretch even further with the addition of an online songwriting competition.
But it all would mean nothing if "Idol's" winners had gone on to release flop albums. Although the winner (and some of the runners-up, on occasion) is guaranteed a record deal, there is no guarantee the public will go out and buy the album.
"You can't just put them out there on their own and take for granted that just because it's 'American Idol,' it will sell," Billboard director of charts and senior analyst Geoff Mayfield says.
Fortunately, "Idol's" winners have generally proved to be music-industry contenders. "The winner basically will sell -- based upon souvenir album of fan interest -- somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 copies," says BMG U.S. chairman and CEO Clive Davis, who has even appeared on the show.
Some winners do even better than that. Six of the artists discovered through "Idol" -- winners Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks, plus Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken -- have combined to sell more than 23 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"As a franchise, that's pretty solid," Mayfield says. "Most labels would wish that they had six artists who could sell that."
And "Idol's" stars agree that the show's success boosts their careers. "Having 'Idol' as a calling card helps a singer like me a lot in terms of generating respect and kind of an instant credibility, you know?"
Season 4 winner Underwood says. "Winning on the show has become a seal of quality that prevents anyone from thinking you may have cheated your way into the music industry. It's almost a paying-your-dues thing."
With that kind of music-industry legitimacy under its belt, "Idol" has finally brought Fuller what he was looking for in creating the show. As a music manager, "Idol" was really a means to an end for him, a shortcut to the problem of launching an unknown singer. Fuller says he wanted to have the public already invested in the person by the time an album came out through a voting process. "By the end of it, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy," he says.
And if "Idol" saves the music industry in the process, then that's fine, too. A song played on "Idol" -- whether it's as classic as a George Gershwin ditty or as retro as a Bee Gees song or as recent as a Keane hit -- translates into sales. "It's like with Oprah," Darnell says. "They're on 'Idol,' and record sales go up."
Still, it's not all just about wringing as many dollars as can be had from the show, even if that's how it seems at times. The show's three major sponsors from its inception -- Coca-Cola, Ford and Cingular (recently renamed AT&T) -- are still with the program, and no one's really in the market for anyone else. Sponsors these days want more than just show ads -- they want a combination of product placement, integration and promotion, and producers realize that the package, as it were, can be too much.
Frot-Coutaz recalls turning down an opportunity with Fox that could have brought in revenue of nearly $40 million. "My view was that it was down-market," she says. "Some people would argue our show is mass-market, (but) it's not down-market. It was pretty controversial at the time, but I felt we shouldn't go there."
Says Liguori: "The most important thing is that we're respectful. It's nice to have the No. 1 show on TV."
Downloading the future
Now more than halfway through Season 6, the "Idol" phenomenon is already on the table for next season's tweaking by its producers. Lythgoe wants to rethink having guest judges; Warwick wants spectaculars like the performance by Prince that ended Season 5; Frot-Coutaz is looking at technology deals for video downloads and mobile video clips.
That's a long way from the early days of the show, when Seacrest had to demonstrate on the air how to send a text-message vote -- and the show could count on 2,000 messages at best. Next month, the show will hold a two-night charity special in which donations from sponsors will be tied directly to the number of votes cast.
For his part, Fuller is hot on the prospect of "Idol" summer camps, the burgeoning world market, full-song downloads and an optimization of the Web site, plus that online songwriting competition.
"I'm a big-picture guy, and I'm always thinking about next year, or what's the next thing we can add to the show," he says. "I'm the only person who has crossed every level of 'Idol' -- from the idea, to looking after the kids, to taking them on the road. So, I see it from inside, outside, front and sideways."
What it comes down to, in the end, is one reason why it all works. As Warwick notes, the secret is not much of a secret.
"The No. 1 reason we're successful is that we have the best people working for us," Fuller says. "Whether it's Nigel or Ken doing the physical production or Cecile doing the budgeting or the tour managers or the music people or the talent -- we get the best people. That's why the show is as good as it is."
MORE 'AMERICAN IDOL' COVERAGE
'Idol' worship: Television's force of nature teaches the world to sing
Behind the music: The execs behind 'Idol'
Here come the judges: The real reasons fans tune in
Global village: 'Idol' brings taste of democracy
Special delivery: Packaging for the world market
Winners' circle: Thoughts from the show's five champs
Guest list: Special appearances become winners
Single sell: Gold records and Grammys
Virtual 'Idol': Reaching fans 24/7
Magic number: Behind 19 Entertainment's success
'American' way: Everything's up for promotional grabs
After party: Marketing 'Idol' winners
Music sharing: Music supervisor clears the air
Minor key: 'Idol's' music director keeps things in tune
Survival, 'Idol'-style: How to cope with competition