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The money tree

Everyone seems to be joining the 'Idol' rich

Yes, it’s getting ridiculous.

In its fifth season, “American Idol” is re-arranging the entire showbiz landscape. There are hits and there are hits; this show is a full-fledged cultural phenom.

“Idol” is steamrolling every show in its path and generating hundreds of millions of dollars every year in ad sales for Fox. But “Idol” riches are also trickling into many other sectors of the showbiz economy.

TV shows, newspapers and record labels that touch the show have enjoyed a lucrative ride on the “Idol” express. And the show’s shadow economy isn’t limited to media — it’s also lifted the fortunes of a wide array of “Idol” carpetbaggers, from Cingular to Coca-Cola to a host of licensees.

The attention is flattering, but Fox and the producers aren’t always thrilled by the frenzy and the risks of overexposure. Still, a frenzy is pretty much guaranteed right up through the show’s finale, which airs May 24, before the series goes into hibernation until next year.

“Idol” is not a saga of brilliant showbiz vision. As Bill Carter details in his new book “Desperate Networks,” every network passed on “Idol” before Fox came along. Even Fox was skeptical: the web only picked up the show after Rupert Murdoch, at the behest of various people including his daughter Elisabeth, instructed the network to close the deal.

That deal, incidentally, was brokered by CAA, another “Idol” beneficiary; the agency represents “Idol” creator Simon Fuller and host Simon Cowell and has the option to rep the contestant-turned-artists. It also reaps the profit from booking the annual 39-city “Idol” tour.

Fox has felt the consequences of its early skepticism. For instance, it only signed Cowell for the first two seasons. Ever since, the entertainingly cranky judge has had the network over a barrel. Between his salary and royalties from his record label at Sony BMG (the official diskery for show winners, another “Idol” piggybacker), he reportedly earns more than $30 million a year.

And the network myopia has left FremantleMedia North America, which produces the show with Fuller’s 19 Entertainment (now owned by CKX founder Robert Sillerman, perhaps the ultimate carpetbagger after the maverick investor bought the company for about $200 million), in possession of its hugely lucrative licensing rights.

Fremantle has sold “Idol” in more than 100 countries around the world, with “Canadian Idol” debuting in June. Later in the summer, the show will hit Brazil. (For more on Fremantle and 19, see separate story.) The pair also make money licensing everything from videogames to apparel, while 19 promotes and collects revenue from concerts.

Fox, despite maneuvering the show to blockbuster status, doesn’t make a penny from these deals (though of course it does get hefty ad coin and collects on some existing digital revenue; it also would get a cut from a plan being contemplated to offer downloads ).

Still, the non-Fox profiteering may benefit the network in less apparent ways. With more companies having a stake in keeping “Idol” alive as a brand, it may help fulfill the net’s hope that the show becomes a “Simpsons”-like fixture that thrives to the end of the decade and beyond.

All the spillover has raised a question: What exactly does it mean for a network that the most popular TV show in years blesses so many outside players? Herewith, a look at the net effect for Fox and for the other leading “Idol” beneficiaries.

FOX: “Idol” has gathered an average of 30 million viewers every week; ratings range between 27 million per episode to 34 million. (In comparison, this year’s Oscarcast drew 38 million viewers.) Season five ratings have jumped about 10% hike from last year’s tally.

The network will pay between $20 million and $35 million annually for the show over the next four seasons. But the cost is dwarfed by the hundreds of millions Fox makes annually in ads. Thirty-second spots on the season finale are going for a budget-popping $1.3 million.

Experts say this series, like a dwindling number of programs, may be one of the few massively popular shows to thrive on ad dollars alone, which may a reason why the piggybackers are less of a concern.

After all, the Super Bowl also has thousands of very profitable piggybackers, but it’s still the network that rakes it in by earning millions on every commercial. As Syracuse U. prof Bob Thompson says, ” ‘Idol’ proves that all this 21st century stuff depends on the cultural equity of a good old-fashioned network success.”

Like Oprah, “Idol” is a charmed brand, virtually immune from bad press. Host Paula Abdul’s alleged misbehavior with a former contestant and other entrants’ personal scandals didn’t ding the ratings. In a world where every scrap of pop culture is dissected in the blogosphere, and a reckless appearance on a talkshow can threaten to derail a career, such immunity is priceless.

But Fox also must contend with the fact that the model is changing. A few years ago, a network could ride herd on a franchise by simply collecting ad dollars. But in 2006, the marketing buzzword is “multiplatform.”

Fox has tried some, but not many, experiments at promoting other News Corp. properties: “Idol” contestants are coached in creating MySpace.com profiles, boosting traffic to the site (which is owned by News Corp.) Cable channel Fox Reality has a show called “American Idol Extra.” And this year’s contestants saw a sneak preview of Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” so they could chat it up on the show afterwards. For the most part, though, the cross-promotions benefit other brands.

OTHER NETWORKS: Early in its run, only one or two “Idol” contestants would appear on late-night and morning TV.

Now NBC’s “Today” and “The Tonight Show” have agreements to bring every eliminated contestant onto the next day’s program. On ABC, both “Good Morning America” and “Live With Regis and Kelly” also spotlight judges and contestants. Ayem chatshows often feature guests plugging their own network’s primetime shows, but the constant touting of celebs from a rival network is more rare. “You can pretty much bet that if Fox had their own venues (other nets) would never see a minute of these stars,” says an exec at a competing net.

Meanwhile, USA has hit it big with “Nashville Star,” a country-music “American Idol” knockoff that cleverly airs on Tuesdays right after the Fox skein and whose name “Star” has used in publicity materials. While execs take pains to point how their program differs from “Idol,” the bump in “Idol” viewers hasn’t hurt — the total audience numbers for “Star” are up 7% this year, an increase that may not exactly be coincidental with “Idol’s” continued rise.

TV Guide Channel is getting in on the spoils with “Idol Tonight,” a pre-show from the producers of the Fox hit that helps TV Guide in its bid for more original programming and greater mass appeal. (Then again, at least Fox parent News Corp., a major shareholder in TVGC, shares in that revenue.)

MAGAZINES: While one editor of a weekly newsmag maintains “Idol” contestants on the cover “don’t really move the needle,” they do provide a bump at celeb mags like US Weekly and In Touch. These pubs sell most copies as impulse buys at the newsstand and rely heavily on fresh bits that customers can take straight to the water cooler.

“Idol” is tailor-made for these pubs, since the show offers the gift of a new celebrity every week. The growth of reality TV generally, and “Idol” specifically, is cited as a big reason why some of these pubs now top 1 million copies and challenge category stalwart People.

Even media outlets that previously saw “Idol” as a cheesy amateur hour hardly worth a passing mention now devote major ink to the show.

The daily “Arts Briefly” section in the New York Times blends news of the art world, classical music and celebs — and every week includes an item on the latest eliminated contestant.

An alleged feud between judge Paula Abdul and host Ryan Seacrest is treated as hard news by such outlets as “Good Morning America” and the Associated Press. (AP wrote: ” ‘American Idol’ host Ryan Seacrest says he and judge Paula Abdul are not speaking to one another, but Abdul calls reports of a feud ‘ridiculous.’ “)

And the three “Idol” judges, who also include Randy Jackson, recently graced the cover of Rolling Stone, a move that at once highlights the changing ethos of that magazine and the uber-popularity of the show.

MUSIC: According to Sony BMG’s RCA Label Group, which releases “American Idol” compilations as well as albums by the show’s winners, the franchise has sold more than 19 million albums and 4.5 million singles since the series debuted.

In fact, “Idol” has given such a big lift to Sony BMG that other major labels have begun investigating how they might be more involved in TV.

And, increasingly, established performers see a spike in sales when they appear on the show.

Shakira’s appearance on the show in late March boosted sales of her latest album “Oral Fixation, Vol. 2” from about 5,000 copies a week to 81,000 copies the week of her perf. The disc’s cume is now beyond 834,000 units.

When Queen recently performed, sales of the band’s new album “Cold Stone Classics,” leapt from 14,000 units the week before the show to 62,000 units a week later. “It was an infomercial for us,” says Dominic Griffin, director of film and television for Hollywood Records, which reps Queen. Music publishing execs, some of whom pooh-poohed “Idol” when it debuted, have changed their attitude.

EMI Music Publishing has licensed more than 500 songs to “American Idol,” for which the company receives a multitude of fees. Martin N. Bandier, co-chief exec of EMI Publishing, says the effect of “Idol” is “a mini tsunami” that has “made up for the declining CD and physical record market.”

MOVIES: Studio marketers have jumped on the “Idol” bandwagon, spending more on TV spots during the broadcast than any other show on television. Studios collectively spent nearly $57 million advertising their pics on “Idol” — more than they spent on “Lost,” “24” and “Grey’s Anatomy” combined.

But attempts to translate the “Idol” phenomenon to the big screen haven’t fared so well. “American Dreamz,” the current Paul Weitz pic about an “Idol”-like contest, grossed just $6 million in its first two weeks at the domestic box office.

A few years ago, Fox’s “From Justin to Kelly,” starring 2002 finalists Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, was a major flop. Arguably, the movie suffered from an attempt at synergy too soon. The pic was slapped together after the first season wrapped and hit theaters before Clarkson became a bonafide music starlet with her first album, “Thankful,” which wasn’t released until a year later.

A movie version of “Idol” is also by nature at odds with what is appealing about the show. “Idol’s” charm is that it lacks the air-brushed perfection of movies. And the suspense of an ongoing reality series isn’t easily captured in a tidy 100-minute package on the bigscreen.

OTHER ‘IDOL’ CARPETBAGGERS: Last season, Cingular, the provider of mobile services to the show, rang up an astonishing 41.5 million text messages from the show’s voting system. In the quarter that just ended in March — smack dab in middle of “Idol” season — the company reported a 9% increase in revenue and a profit of $350 million, and attributed it partly to “Idol.”

Cingular has jumped heavily on the “Idol” wagon as the show’s popularity has grown. It now sells ringtones of “Idol” performances as they happen. And it recently launched a service that allows the 70 million MySpace subscribers to sell their own “Idol”-like karaoke performances as ringtones via the site.

Others gleefully join in. Coke pays a hefty sponsorship fee but gets prominent product-placement throughout the program. Vidgame firm Konami is said to be planning an ambitious “Idol” game. And in licensing that may really stretch the brand-extension cord, Mattel has “Barbie American Idol — Rockin’ Recording Studio” while the costume firm Disguise offers the “Future American Idol Toddler Costume.”

(Phil Gallo contributed to this report.)

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