Fox's Vinciquerra optimistic on 'Idol' changes

Hopes new coaches will draw younger viewers

NEW YORK -- Tony Vinciquerra, chairman and CEO of the Fox Networks Group, is hopeful that this season of "American Idol" will be better received than last thanks to some tweaks.

For example, the "Idols" results show was "very boring ... to be blunt about it" last year, so its composition has been changed, he said Wednesday at Citi's 19th Annual Entertainment, Media and Telecommunications Conference in Arizona in a session that was webcast.

He added that new coaches who can draw the younger "Idol" target audience and a new judge are also part of the revamps for the show, whose season premiere is scheduled for next week.

Importantly, "I am told the talent is terrific," compared to what he argued was a pool of contenders with less exciting personalities last year, said Vinciquerra, even though he hasn't seen any footage of this year's talent yet. A record number of people lined up for the tryouts for the new season, he told the Citi conference.

Vinciquerra also said Fox has pushed back the deadline for second-quarter upfront advertising cancellation options to as late as mid-February after advertisers said they need more time to adjust their ad spending plans. "They want to see what's happening in the marketplace," he explained, adding that no cancellation requests have been made yet.

For the first quarter, the rate of cancellations stood at about 2.5%, he said.

Vinciquerra predicted Fox would do better than most peers in terms of cancellations due in part to the return of "Idol," which has marketers locked in.

Scatter ad volume is "softer than it was last year" for Fox, but prices are at or slightly above upfront levels, the executive said.

Asked about the recession's ad effect in broader terms, Vinciquerra predicted that it will continue to hurt mainly local advertising businesses. National ads will also be affected, but less so, he said, adding that network ads in particular remain much sought-after.

"The consumer is gonna spend less money" in the recession, so things will be difficult for most businesses, he said. "We're gonna have a tough 2009."

Vinciquerra also spoke of the "oversaturation" of cable network supply, predicting that some channels could consolidate down the line. "There are too many networks clearly," he said.

Also at the Citi conference Wednesday:

-- DirecTV president CEO Chase Carey said retransmission payments will become a bigger issue and potential cost challenge for his company over time. However, he said many major carriage deal renewals with network owners are still a few years away, and he is hoping for fee increases in the 5% range.

Carey also said the launch next month of DirecTV's marketing pact with AT&T will include new features, such as the ability to program a DVR from a mobile device.

-- Verizon chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg said his company has chosen Microsoft Corp.'s MSN as its mobile search partner. MSN had been in competition with Google for the deal with the No. 2 U.S. mobile carrier.

He also said Verizon's FiOS TV video service this week launched a promotion that includes a free DVR and will likely run for a few months.