Lackluster season may make changes

Can “American Idol” be saved? And for Fox, does it matter?

Execs at the network, of course, would say “yes” to both questions. But there’s a reason the network backed the Brinks truck up to Simon Cowell’s driveway earlier this year.

After looking at the Wednesday night ratings for “American Idol’s” ninth season finale, Fox execs are likely breathing a sigh of relief that they’ve got Cowell and his new series, “The X Factor,” on tap for fall 2011.

“Idol’s” 2010 swan song, in which 24-year-old Lee DeWyze was named this year’s champ, put up big numbers, as usual. But the show logged its lowest-ever demo scores for a finale and its smallest overall audience for a season-ender — a little more than 24 million — since its first edition in summer 2002.

According to national estimates from Nielsen, the “Idol” finale averaged an 8.2 rating/24 share in adults 18-49 and 24.2 million viewers overall from 8 to 10:07 p.m., with the final seven minutes surging to 34.4 million viewers. From 8 to 10 p.m., Fox beat the combined delivery of the mostly repeat and special programming on ABC, CBS and NBC by 8 shares in adults 18-49.

While a massive number by primetime standards, this year’s “Idol” finale came in 18% below last year’s in the 18-49 demo (10.0 rating) and a big 28% below two years ago (11.4). In total viewers, it was down 16% from last year’s 28.9 million.

“Idol’s” best finale numbers came in 2003 (16.8 rating in 18-49 and 38.1 million viewers overall).

For this season overall, “Idol’s” ratings were down 10% in adults 18-49 and 9% in total viewers. And the reviews along the way were as harsh as those declines might suggest.

“Wednesday night’s ‘American Idol’ felt more like a wake than a finale — a wake for what was once a vital, dominant force in popular culture,” the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik wrote Thursday in a harsh takedown of the show. “What a sucker I have been to have ever rooted for, cared or been upset by anything that ever happened on this series.”

The finale capped a spotty season that was marked by a disappointing crop of contestants, none of whom captured audience passion as many have in the past.

“I’ve already forgotten the winner,” quipped one rival exec.

The show’s addition of Ellen De Generes as a judge was also widely panned, as the comedian’s contributions appeared muted. (Some have also noted that DeGeneres made headlines this week by signing YouTube star Greyson Chance to her new label — on a week when her focus should have been on choosing the “Idol” winner.)

Then there was the show’s sloppy habit of running late this season, angering viewers, as well as host Ryan Seacrest’s increasingly eccentric on-camera behavior (fueling rumors of a rift between him and Cowell).

Even Cowell appeared to be phoning it in for much of the year — something he recently confirmed to Oprah Winfrey. Appearing on Winfrey’s show, Cowell said he had grown “bored” with “Idol.”

“There were too many times, Oprah, where I was sitting there bored, and I thought, ‘The end of the day, the audience doesn’t tune in to watch me being bored. They deserve more than that,’ ” he said on Winfrey’s yakker last week. “But I can’t hide it when I’m bored. I just can’t fake it.”

Much of the cause of “Idol’s” decline has been attributed to the show’s lack of star power this season. The exit of eccentric judge Paula Abdul might have also played a role. And at least one reality producer suggests that “Idol’s” production values might also be to blame.

“From a production standpoint, it’s a lazily produced show,” said the producer, who has mounted similar shows in the past. “The money is apparently going to pay the talent’s lavish salaries. The lighting, the direction, the stagecraft, the packages, the execution is poor.”

To be fair, mounting a live show twice a week is a tall order. But “Idol” appeared to have an impossible time keeping the show moving smoothly — particularly when compared to its CBS Television City neighbor, “Dancing With the Stars,” which perhaps runs a tighter ship (and doesn’t have overrun problems).”Idol” has propelled Fox to No. 1 for an unprecedented six consecutive seasons. But with Cowell exiting, the viewership decline is expected to accelerate — one rival predicts as much as 25%, unless a major name who’s also well suited for the gig can be found. (Granted, an “Idol” down by 25% would still make it a ratings power.)

Moreover, the declines are coming as “Idol” becomes more expensive to produce. Show will save money without Cowell’s $50 million salary, but Seacrest makes $15 million a year on the show, and DeGeneres is believed to make at least twice that amount.

The press focus in recent days has been on who will succeed Cowell and when it might happen. Names mentioned for the gig have included stars such as Jamie Foxx, record execs such as Tommy Mottola and even Seacrest himself.

But ultimately, the question is probably less about Cowell succession plans and more about “Idol” succession plans. And although Fox ideally hopes its “Idol”/”X Factor”/”So You Think You Can Dance” trifecta will provide year-round ratings dominance for seasons to come, “The X Factor” serves as a nice dose of primetime insurance if “Idol” starts rapidly sliding.

In the U.K., after all, “Pop Idol” was eventually replaced completely by “X Factor.” And “X Factor” comes not only from Cowell, but also “Idol” producer FremantleMedia North America and Sony. (19 Entertainment is also believed to have a stake in the show, after a legal settlement between “Idol” creator Simon Fuller and Cowell.)

Unlike “Idol,” the age range for “X Factor” goes from teen up through old age; musical groups are also welcome. “X Factor” judges also play a role in mentoring the contestants and are judged as well, given the success or failure of their performers.

Abdul has long been rumored as a potential judge for “X Factor,” but in the immediate future has signed on to appear on CBS’ new competish “Got to Dance.” It’s also believed Seacrest may have been approached at some point about hosting “X Factor,” but last year sealed a rich three-year, $45 million deal to stick with “Idol.”

With Cowell off “Idol” next season, rival nets are already smelling some blood.

“You have to look at what’s going on at the competition to know that it’s not necessarily as scary in the spring as it has been,” NBC U TV Entertainment topper Jeff Gaspin recently said.

Besides Cowell’s departure next season, “Idol” will undergo a change on the performance side, as the show’s musical director, Rickey Minor, moves on to serve as Jay Leno’s new “Tonight Show” band leader.

Fox has also announced plans to alter “Idol’s” air pattern next season, when performance shows will run for 90 minutes Tuesday nights, with an abbreviated 30 minute results show Wednesdays.

The change is meant to address those concerns over this season’s Tuesday night overruns. But beyond that, Fox, 19 and Fremantle have been mum on any more changes. They also declined to be interviewed Thursday.

No one should write “Idol” off yet, of course. A strong Cowell replacement and a hot group of new singers could easily erase memories of this year’s dull season. And reality shows have a resilience that scripted skeins can’t match. Staples such as “Survivor” and “Dancing With the Stars” have also seen their fortunes rise and fall, depending on all sorts of factors.

But if there’s ever a year that Fox, 19 and FremantleMedia will want to take a long, hard look at a radical makeover, this is it.

“The American public loves ‘American Idol,’ ” Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Rice said in January. “Simon is irreplaceable. It’s incumbent on us that the show remains vital and entertaining.”

Meanwhile, Wednesday wrapped the end of the 2009-10 television season, with preliminary final numbers as projected earlier this week (Daily Variety, May 26).

In adults 18-49, Fox’s 3.7 rating/10 share was followed by CBS (3.2/9), and ABC and NBC tied for third (2.7/7). This reps the sixth consecutive season victory for Fox — the longest streak in broadcast history.

In adults 25-54, Fox and CBS tied for the lead (4.1/10), and ABC and CBS in a draw for third (3.2/8). And CBS cruised in total viewers (11.8 million), followed by Fox (10.0 million), ABC (8.6 million) and NBC (8.2 million).

Fox also led in the more narrow adults 18-34 demo (3.2/10), with ABC, CBS and NBC all well back at 2.2/7; Univision also figures to be neck and neck with the Alphabet, Eye and Peacock when final numbers come in.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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