Australian 'Idol' format tweaks boost ratings


SYDNEY -- Some high-stakes gambles taken by producers and network executives associated with the FremantleMedia format "Australian Idol" have paid off in much improved ratings figures this season, and now other markets are eyeing the core changes made to the "Idol" format here.

Just more than a year ago, broadcaster Network Ten, producer Grundy Television and format owners FremantleMedia and Nineteen were surveying the wreck that was "Idol" in 2005. Ratings for the weekly performance shows had dropped 30% from the highs of 2004, when 2.1 million viewers tuned in each Sunday night. The audience for the finale had plummeted from a record 3.3 million viewers in 2004 to 1.9 million, dropping from the most-watched program to the 29th most-watched in '05.

In its fourth year this year, following what perhaps has been the biggest overhaul of the "Idol" format in any of the show's 30 markets worldwide, viewers have risen to closer to 1.7 million a week for the performance shows, up from an average of 1.4 million last year. The episodes also are winning their slots in a wider 16-54 demographic -- led by innovations to the format that have included performers being able to play an instrument and a special episode with contestants performing original songs.

Simon Spalding, FremantleMedia director of operations for Asia Pacific, said that though the Aussie "Idol's" numbers last year were "disappointing," they weren't "wholly unexpected." He contends that "Idol's" problem was compounded by a crowded network schedule of talent shows that included the short-lived "X Factor" and "American Idol" as well as competing big entertainment formats on other networks.

Changes to the format this year included increasing the eligible age of the contestants to 30, traveling to more cities for auditions, allowing performers to audition with instruments, encouraging more singer-songwriters to enter, stripping the semifinals over five evenings in one week and breaking them up into male and female groupings, and producing a one-off "Up Close and Personal" special in which contestants performed an original song to showcase songwriting talents to Sony BMG and the audience.

The changes were made with an eye to increasing the talent base for the show while attracting more serious musicians and providing a "riskier" side to the contestants' performances, which helps the audience see "what kind of Idol they'll be voting for," said Stephen Tate, "Idol" executive producer for Network Ten.

"Idol" executive producer Greg Benness, with Grundy Television, had to fight with FremantleMedia and Ten for the key changes.

"Greg has been a passionate advocate of the evolution that the show had to go through," Spalding said.

Allowing the use of instruments in auditions and for a performance show, for instance, was a world-first for the program.

"All 'Idol' markets (around the world) were looking at it very closely, so there was pressure," Tate said. "We are the experiment to see whether it will change the face of 'Idol' internationally. The ratings are very satisfying."

Added Spalding, "The core of the show is still the talent, but the diversity and musicality of the talent we've found this year has allowed us to push those (programming) boundaries."

In addition, Tate said stripping the semifinals into a one-week event was a huge gamble that could have gone horribly wrong. "Thankfully, it didn't," he said. "It picked up the pace, where in previous years, the series dragged."