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From ‘Idol’ to high gear

On top with pop hit, Fox tunes second verse

Forget Kelly and Justin: As “American Idol” wraps up its boffo summer run on Fox tonight, the real winners are named Sandy, Gail, Mike — and, of course, Rupert.

Many people are responsible for, and will benefit from, the smashing success of “Idol”: producers FremantleMedia and 19 Television, record label RCA and nasty Brit judge Simon Cowell — who just sealed his deal to return for the second edition of “Idol”–to name a few.

What’s more, the long-range impact of the show won’t be known for months. Just how many people will buy the winner’s first single, or whether auds will return for next winter’s “Idol 2,” are giant question marks that will determine whether the show is a summer fling or a long-term affair.

But for now, at least, it’s clear that the folks at Fox have the most to gain from television’s latest pop culture phenom:

  • Fox reality topper Mike Darnell, whose “dark side” has gotten the net out of numerous ratings pinches with hits such as “When Animals Attack,” “Temptation Island” and “Celebrity Boxing,” has now proved an ability to embrace his inner angels. He also has cemented his reputation as network TV’s top reality titan (and the most controversial).

  • Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow gets credit for making good on his promise to bring Darnell over to the light, in the process creating a still-rare commodity in the world of unscripted TV: a reality show that advertisers love. While Darnell’s past hits have generated buzz and ratings, no skein promises to reap the sort of ad dollars the upcoming “Idol 2” will deliver.

  • Entertainment prexy Gail Berman, who has already shown an ability to launch critically acclaimed skeins with broad appeal (from “Malcolm in the Middle” to “24”), worked with Darnell to make sure U.K. import “Idol” was properly Americanized and promoted. She also snagged an amazing promo platform to hype her new fall lineup, which is heavy on untested new shows.

  • Rupert Murdoch, of course, gets to count the millions Fox will make from the show.

Picking up momentum

Headed into a critically important fall frame, “Idol” also has another, less quantifiable benefit for Fox: the all-important Big Mo. While momentum does not a winning season make — and the fact that Fox will be airing baseball throughout much of October won’t help — a little positive energy never hurt.

“It’s great to have good numbers and it’s harder to not have good numbers (going into the fall),” Berman said. “This summer has been wonderful for us. It’s given us the great (audience) circulation that we hoped for.”

What’s more, it’s also brought femmes and teens back to the Fox fold in a big way. And it’s also attracted viewers to Fox who might otherwise never have tuned in the net.

“It’s a beloved show for so many people,” Darnell said. “It’s the broadest show I’ve been involved with. It appeals to everyone from kids to grandparents.”

Still, both Berman and Grushow are careful to not overhype “Idol’s” impact.

“Not only did it help improve the network’s ratings and financial performance, it was also a useful promotional platform for the fall,” Grushow said. “And if the network is really fortunate, it will have come upon a successful new franchise. But that’s for the future to tell.”

‘Idol 2’ steps into big shoes

Indeed, besides predicting whether ousted “Idol” contestant Tamyra Gray will have a bigger career than the actual winner, one of the burning questions yet to be answered is whether “Idol 2” can live up to the original.

Not only will the show be up against tougher competition in season, but the novelty of the show may wear off by then — particularly if a number of “Idol” clones hit the air by then.

Fox’s last big reality monster, “Temptation Island,” struck out in its second at-bat (no thanks to a killer Thursday timeslot). Some industry insiders thought Fox might do well to delay a second “Idol” until next summer, but the realities of network TV made that impossible.

“We’re working in a business where, if you’ve got a hot hand, you better play it,” Grushow said. “Because if you don’t play it, someone else will. If Fox didn’t come back with ‘American Idol’ in January, other networks would have been there to fill the void.”

Indeed, CBS is already planning to launch a new “Star Search” as early as next winner, while USA Network is preppy an “Idol”-like competish with a Nashville twang. And, CBS has proved with “Survivor” that smash summer skeins can be successful in the regular season.

“We’re all obviously nervous about the next one,” said FremantleMedia exec Cecile Frot-Coutaz. “When you have success it’s harder to go up than down-we’ll just have to work harder at it.”

Meanwhile, “American Idol” also served as a primetime coming-out party for Fremantle–which until now only produced one U.S. network program, CBS’ daytime gamer “The Price Is Right”–and Simon Fuller’s 19 Television.

In a summer where original reality ruled the TV roost, Frot-Coutaz, who exec produces the show along with Fuller and Simon Jones, said “American Idol” has helped cement the nonscripted genre as a permanent primetime staple.

“It reinforced the fact that reality TV is not dead,” she said. “It definitely put Fox on the map in the summer.”

In particular, Frot-Coutaz credits the interactive element of “Idol” for setting the show apart from the pack.

Cowell’s ‘cruelty angle’

“I don’t know any other show to date that has been interactive to this degree,” Frot-Coutaz said. “The cruelty angle with Simon Cowell was a big factor as well, but if you compare it to ‘Pop Stars’ or other shows like that, the interactivity captured the nation.”

“American Idol” also continued the trend of importing some of television’s biggest reality phenoms a la “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor.”

“When you have a strong show on your hands, it does translate,” Frot-Coutaz said. “We didn’t change much with ‘American Idol.’ It proves again the point that when you have these brands that work, you shouldn’t tinker with them too much.”

That said, the producers of “American Idol” plan to make a few adjustments before the sequel airs next winter.

According to Frot-Coutaz, the show will focus more on the personal lives of the contestants.

“We had been a bit constrained because the length of the hour in the U.S. is 10 minutes shorter than in the U.K.,” she said. “We haven’t had the time to show them much beyond the performances, and we’d like to work on that –without making it ‘Big Brother.’ ”

“American Idol 2” will also showcase the audition process in two or three episodes, rather than the one seg that summarized all seven audition cities this time.

“People love that, that’s where a lot of the cruelty is, so we’ll show more of that,” Frot-Croutaz said.

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