Fox and the producers of “American Idol” are putting down new digital roots as the show enters the homestretch in its 13th season. Their bet: that promotional integrations with Google and Facebook will help elevate ratings for the aging franchise, especially among younger auds.
Starting with tonight’s “Idol” broadcast, featuring the competition’s 13 finalists, the show is launching a TV industry first: Viewers will be able to cast up to 50 votes from Google search results pages for their favorite singers. The digital ballot will show up in Google searches for “American Idol” and related terms, starting at the top of of each performance show (8 p.m. ET) and continuing through 10 a.m. PT the following day.
“We wanted to put the voting experience in front of people as much as possible,” said Bill Bradford, Fox senior VP of digital. With the Google search-based voting, “it doesn’t get more direct than that.”
With Facebook, the “Idol” telecasts will feature data and photos pulled from the social site. In the first execution, starting Thursday night, the show will display a mosaic comprising the Facebook profile pictures of fans who voted for contestants online at AmericanIdol.com and the show’s mobile apps (and who opted-in to let the show use their likeness) — an element Bradford said will provide a visual “heartbeat of the show.” Note that “Idol” fans can’t vote directly from Facebook; the site provides user authentication for votes cast via the show’s website and apps.
Neither Google nor Facebook are paying sponsors, but both brands will get high-profile TV exposure through the pacts. The singing show, produced by FremantleMedia North America and Core Media’s 19 Entertainment, has been working with both companies for about a year leading up to this week’s launch with “Idol.”
“Idol” producers acknowledged that the goal is to stabilize ratings. Viewership for the 13th edition of “Idol,” led by judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick, Jr., has been hurt in recent weeks by the NBC’s primetime coverage of the Winter Olympics from Sochi.
More to the point, according to Bradford, Google and Facebook will layer in new creative elements to “Idol” that keep viewers engaged. “This is going to sound like marketing spin, but for us, it’s a huge partnership with two of the biggest technology titans out there,” he said.
For Google, the “American Idol” deal will reinforce its status as the No. 1 search engine. And it’s also designed to drive people to sign up for Google accounts and use the Google+ social service, because in order to cast votes users must be logged in to a valid Google account.
“People come to Google to find information, and we’re excited to now also power their voting experience,” said Anjali Joshi, VP of product management for Google Search.
Google is calling the partnership with “American Idol” a pilot, and currently has no future plans to work with other TV shows.
David Luner, president of brand partnerships and franchise management for FremantleMedia North America, expects voting through Google to grow over the course of the rest of the season, as viewers become familiar with the new option. “There is a huge marketing benefit to working with Google,” he said.
With the addition of Google, the show now offers viewers five ways to vote: on the web at AmericanIdol.com; via the “Idol” app; by text message; with a toll-free call; and through Google search. All five methods of voting are managed and certified by vote-management firm Telescope. While text message and phone voting is time-zone restricted (and open for just two hours after the live telecast), the online and mobile voting options are open from 8 p.m. ET to 1 p.m. ET the following day.
Facebook, which has committed about a dozen staffers to work with “American Idol,” first worked with ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” on in-show data visualizations last fall and has entered into similar partnerships with other TV shows.
“With a show like ‘American Idol,’ you know there will be a conversation on an enormous scale,” said Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s VP of global operations and media partnerships. “We have worked with them this whole season trying to come up with exciting ways to make the the show richer.”
Starting next week, with the March 5 broadcast of “Idol,” Facebook will supply real-time data of voting trends among East Coast voters while the show is in progress. That will include dynamic vote tallies for singers that have just completed a perf, as well as different breakdowns by gender, age and geography (with data from votes cast at AmericanIdol.com and the show’s apps, for which Facebook provides user authentication).
“In 2014, it is almost analog to say, ‘Hey, we are going to tabulate the votes but wait until tomorrow to tell you the results,” Bradford said.
“Idol” producers and Fox deliberated a lot about whether presenting live voting results — while the show is in progress — could influence the outcome. But because online voting is open until the following day, said FremantleMedia’s Luner, “Our point is, if you don’t like the way the voting is going, go ahead and vote for your favorite.”
Meanwhile, Fox has struck a partnership with Vevo, the Internet music video distributor, to produce a weekly series, “Idol Insider.” That debuted Feb. 10, running on Mondays as a preview of the show’s events for the week ahead.
Going forward, the Vevo show will be hosted by musician and YouTube personality Sam Tsui. “Idol Insider” is available on Vevo.com, YouTube and other distribution channels. The digital series includes interviews with judges, mentors and finalists, plus performances from former “Idol” contestants and special guests.