Ratings Fall Fox's 'American Idol,' Advertisers

Coca-Cola, AT&T praise show as ad buyers say alternatives hard to find

Viewers may be leaving “American Idol,” but the show’s sponsors are not following suit.

The venerable Fox musical popularity contest this season to date has an average audience of about 14.1 million, according to data from ad buyer Horizon, a dip of around 20% from last year at this time. And while viewer interest may be shifting, advertisers continue to be enamored with Ryan Seacrest and the program’s ever-shifting roster of celebrity judges.

“The Wednesday edition is still the third-highest rated on adults 18 to 49, and Thursday’s comes in sixth or seventh. Both editions are still top five or top ten programs,” said Jason Maltby, a senior TV-buying executive at Mindshare, a large media-buying agency. “As long as the value proposition is there, I think people will stay in the show.”

Fox declined to comment on advertiser interest in the current run of the program.

Indeed, Coca-Cola Co. and AT&T Inc., two of “Idol’s” most prominent sponsors, say they are sticking with the show. “’American Idol’ is the ultimate wish fulfillment show, and remains a powerful platform for AT&T to connect directly with our customers,” an AT&T spokesman said via email. “The 12-season collaboration between Coca-Cola and ‘American Idol’ continues to offer engaging, groundbreaking opportunities to connect with our core consumers,” Coke said in a statement. A spokesman for Ford Motor, the third big supporter of “American Idol,” did not respond to a query seeking comment.

The sentiment reveals an interesting TV-industry rule: Big still sells – even when it’s getting smaller.

With everything from Hulu to Netflix to iTunes drawing viewers away from traditional TV-watching, even giant entertainment properties like “Idol” are vulnerable. And yet, in a sea of reality series, webisodes and high-quality “House of Cards” alternatives, “Idol” is still seen as a relative titan when compared to many other options.

Indeed, in 2012, when the show’s finale drew its smallest audience ever – about 21.5 million viewers – to see Philip Phillips take the “Idol” crown, advertisers still pumped approximately $836.4 million into the program, according to Kantar. In 2011, they spent about $731.8 million.

Will those figures hold in 2013? Ad prices for “Idol” have fallen significantly. In last year’s upfront, “Idol” was securing $340,825 on average for a 30-second spot in Wednesday’s show, according to Advertising Age – down from $502,900 on average in its 2011 run. Thursday’s show was commanding on average $296,002 for a 30-second ad, down from $468,100 in the previous season.

“It’s obvious that it’s not what it once was, and perhaps this year’s numbers are proving it more than ever,” said one ad buyer, who declined to be identified. But marketers remain intensely interested in the “Idol” audience, this executive said. The show’s viewership is broader than that of many others, often drawing both kids and adults; the show’s connection to music generates interest from consumers no matter what the TV ratings; and, simply put, it’s not so easy for advertisers to abandon “Idol” and still reach the same number of TV viewers.

What’s more, “Idol” lends itself to advertising plays other shows may not. AT&T, for instance, has used “Idol” to get consumers to test out new technologies, from texting in a vote way back in 2003 to using tablets and other mobile devices to choose an eliminated “Idol” contestant to join the show’s summer concert tour. Coca Cola on Wednesday said it would use “Idol” to enlist fans to help musician Carly Rae Jepsen complete a new musical track by the program

“It’s still a premium show on the network,” the ad-buying executive said. “It’s not like there’s a fire sale for it.”

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