Ford Reduced 'American Idol' Ad Spend

Ad maneuver likely to influence scrutiny of mature ratings-champ in transition

In the annals of famous alliances between advertisers and TV shows, Ford and “American Idol” have long gone together – to invoke a famous 1970s car commercial – like baseball, apple pie, hot dogs and Chevrolet. Now, those ties appear to be loosening.

Ford, which has been a major sponsor of the Fox program since it debuted in 2002, quietly pared its support of the program in the recently completed 2012-2013 TV season, according to an ad-buying executive and other people familiar with the program, and does not seem to be increasing levels for 2014. “We made a few tweaks” in 2013, said Marisa Bailey, a Ford communications manager, who declined to comment on the advertiser’s “Idol” plans for next year.

“We are still a title sponsor,” she added. “We could not be happier with our partnership with Fox.” A Fox spokeswoman said executives were not available for comment.

Ford’s ad-spending maneuver is likely to raise more questions about the direction of what has arguably become one of TV’s most popular programs. “American Idol” remains one of the most-watched shows on the boob tube, but its popularity has been in decline as the show moves firmly into its second decade on the air. “Idol’s” overall audience fell more than 20% this season, according to data from Nielsen.

Advertisers depend on “Idol” to reach some of the biggest audiences of consumers available in media. Marketers spent more than $836.4 million on “American Idol” in 2012, according to data from Kantar Media, an increase from the $731.8 million committed to the program in 2011, but less than the $849.6 million the show attracted in 2009.

As “Idol’s” overall reach shrinks, however, it’s feasible to imagine its advertisers may use other venues to supplement it. Ford has looked to digital and social media to “continue to diversify how we connect with consumers,” said Bradley, the company spokeswoman.

As a result, Ford has given some ground on the show. As is often the case with U.S. automakers making a larger-than-usual ad investment in a TV show, Ford ‘s support of “Idol” came with a guarantee of exclusivity: No rival car ads were to appear during the show. The same policy is in place, for instance, for General Motors’ Chevrolet during “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS. Chevrolet cars figure prominently in the program, and are driven by the series’ stars. As such, no ads from other vehicles are allowed in the show.

Yet in this most recent season, even as Ford weaved promotional messaging into the Wednesday edition of the program, ads from rival car makers began to appear (The show’s Thursday edition seemed to continue without other car commercials). And according to ad buyers and other people familiar with negotiations for the show, Fox is making a pitch to rival car marketers for “Idol’s” 2014 run.

Fox may see Ford’s slimmed presence as an opportunity to reach out to advertisers who had previously not been able to appear in “Idol.” Hyundai Motor America advertised on “Idol” this season, said Chris Hosford, a company spokesman. He declined to speak about plans for 2014.

It’s not a given that Ford pulling back from “Idol” means its cutting ties with Fox. The two parties have a long history together that this season included Ford logos and cars made impossible to miss during a scene in “New Girl” that took place a t a car show. In the past, Ford’s F-150 trucks appeared in popular spy-serial “24.” For two seasons, Ford helped Fox present a commercial-free season premiere of the show in both 2002 and 2003. Longer-than-usual Ford blurbs appeared before and after the drama ran.

Sponsors of “American Idol” have had as big a presence on the program as host Ryan Seacrest or veteran judge Randy Jackson. Ford is one of a troika of big-spending advertisers who, in exchange for a large chunk of ad cash, got to make the most of the property.

AT&T, for instance, has used “Idol’ to encourage viewers to take part in new kinds of behavior – texting a vote via mobile phone, for example – that could have driven viewers to its products and services. Coca-Cola was allowed to place red cups with its logos on the judges table. And Ford produced in-show music videos that show contestants and Ford vehicles together.

Ford has in the past fawned over “Idol.” In a 2011 press statement, Crystal Worthern, content and alliances manager for the company’s Ford-branded vehicles said “Idol” was “ one of the biggest platforms on television, and it’s very difficult to find something that can compete with it in the entertainment space.”

In March, Coca-Cola and AT&T praised the program despite noticeable dips in its ratings.

Ad buyers anticipate “American Idol” staying in the ranks of the nation’s best-watched programs. Indeed, according to a Variety survey of four top ad-buying agencies, both the Wednesday and Thursday editions of “Idol” are expected to be among the ten biggest generators of viewers between 18 and 49 who watch commercials. Even so, the Thursday-night “Idol” is seen tying with “The Blacklist,” a freshman program on NBC and the Wednesday-night show” is expected to be trumped by CB S’s “The Big Bang Theory” as well as NBC’s Monday-night broadcast of “The Voice.”

Fox is not leaving “Idol” unattended. The network has already dismissed the majority of thepanel of celebrity judges from the 2013 season and installed new producers. Fox has named veteran David Hill, the former Fox Sports chief known for taking chances with the presentation of live events, to supervise both “American Idol” and “The X-Factor” next season.

And Per Blankens, the exec producer of the Swedish version of the show for the past five years, has been named executive producer of the U.S. program by producer FremantleMedia North America. 19 Entertainment, the other producer of “Idol” named Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager as two new exec producers of the popular program.

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