Fighting ‘American Idol’ worship

Rivals scramble schedules in frantic bid to cope with Fox's ratings phenomenon

After five years of virtually unchecked growth, 2007 is the year “American Idol” will finally see its ratings start to fade.

At least, that’s what execs at every network not owned by Rupert Murdoch are fervently wishing for this holiday season.

Logically, their dreams aren’t farfetched: It’s virtually unheard of for a hit show entering its sixth season not to experience at least a little Nielsen erosion.

“At some point, it’s got to go down, right?” one rival exec plaintively asks. “I mean, all shows go down eventually, don’t they?”

Maybe — or maybe not. Competitors aren’t taking any chances, however.

Like residents of a small coastal town at the mercy of Mother Nature, non-Fox nets are trying to do all they can to prepare for the start of what’s now known simply as ” ‘Idol’ season.”

Just last week, ABC announced it was moving one of its top dramas, “Lost,” to a new timeslot out of the path of what Alphabet scheduling guru Jeff Bader has called the ” ‘Idol’ tsunami.” Instead, it’ll battle Simon & Co. with new comedies and a William Shatner-hosted gameshow.

NBC, meanwhile, will launch its “Grease” reality skein during the first week of the year, hoping to get viewers hooked before “Idol” grabs away the media oxygen starting Jan. 16.

And CBS is keeping hot frosh drama “Jericho” off the air until late February, thus minimizing the number of times it might face off against “Idol” on Wednesdays.

The frame from January through May has become the most nerve-wracking time of the year for webheads. Fox unleashes about 45 highly-rated hours of “Idol,” dominating two — and sometimes three — nights each week.

Since moving from summer to the regular season in 2002, “Idol” has vaporized nearly two dozen skeins that have tried to compete against it. Comedy has been particularly hard-hit.

In the film world, studios respond to such overwhelming firepower by simply getting out of the way, scheduling their tentpoles away from one another. Networks, on the other hand, simply can’t go dark for a couple hours every week.

Tentpoles can energize the box office, with the success spilling over to rival pics. Similarly, other networks can end up benefiting from the huge influx of viewers who come to watch “Idol” — and when the show’s over, start looking around for something else to watch.

When “America’s Next Top Model” aired on the now-dead UPN, net sometimes scheduled the show at 9 p.m. in order to pick up “Idol” junkies hungry for another reality fix.

But the biggest beneficiary, of course, is Fox. The halo effect from the show — by far, the most popular series on television — manages to lift Fox’s entire schedule, turning shows like “House” into monster hits. The extra lift Fox gets makes it tougher for rivals to compete.

“When they get that new influx of viewers, it transforms their network,” one rival sighs. “I don’t believe there’s ever been a show that’s defined a network as much as ‘Idol.’ They’re riding high when it’s on, and they’re awful when it’s off.”

Then there’s the fear factor.

In a town prone to paranoia, rivals worry that Fox will add extra episodes of the show if it needs the added ratings juice, or fret over the always looming (but still unlikely) threat that the net might choose to move the “Idol” results show to Thursday nights.

Worries come even though Fox — not wanting to kill its golden goose — has so far been pretty disciplined about keeping “Idol” at the same number of hours each year.

“It’s this hurricane that blows in,” says NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf. “We know it’s gonna come and when it’s going to hit. We just have to buckle down and prepare for it the best we can.”

No network claims to have found a sure-fire way to deal with the “Idol” monster, but execs have learned a few lessons about how best to compete.

While “Idol” is that rare TV beast that appeals to viewers from 8 months to 80 years, skeins skewing slightly older seem to fare better than shows that appeal to “Idol’s” core 18-to-34 demo.

“You don’t want to skew too young,” Metcalf says.

CBS senior exec VP Kelly Kahl argues that, opposite “Idol,” familiarity breeds success.

“It helps to have a show that has established a bit of an audience before ‘Idol’ comes around,” he says. “Trying new things against ‘Idol’ is a really tough task.”

That’s why NBC is slotting two older-skewing, existing franchises — “Deal or No Deal” and “Dateline” — against Fox’s powerhouse.

CBS has also proven adept at weathering the “Idol” onslaught with skeins such as “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds.”

Even the CW’s “Gilmore Girls” did well vs. “Idol” when it aired on the now-dead WB. While its young female audience is the same that watches “Idol,” its loyal fan base didn’t stray.

ABC is taking a different — and aggressive — tack this year, however.

Rather than keeping “Lost” as a 9 p.m. Wednesday beachhead vs. the “Idol” results show, Alphabet has opted to slot its buzzworthy new laffer “The Knights of Prosperity.”

Net thinks the skein has a male bent that could play well opposite the more femme-friendly “Idol.” It’s also surrounding “Knights” with three other comedies, hoping to build a traditional comedy block on the night.

“Eighty-seven percent of the country isn’t watching ‘Idol,’ ” Bader argues. “There’s room for something else to succeed. If it’s a good show, people will find it.”

Whatever strategy a net adopts, Metcalf argues consistency is key.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to buckle down,” he says, conceding that in past years, NBC might have panicked in response to the damage “Idol” inflicted.

“You see a number you’re scared about so you make a change, and then you end up with an even scarier number,” he says. “It makes no sense to have a revolving door of shows.”

While each net takes a slightly different approach to “Idol,” they all have one thing in common: a healthy respect for the show’s ability to lure viewers. That hasn’t always been the case.

“Early on, I think it was easy to dismiss it as something that would fade,” one exec says. “But as the body bags piled up, it became less and less easy to ignore.”

Which leads back to the question: Is this the year “American Idol” will finally cool?

So far, the show has defied the laws of Nielsen gravity, maintaining its jaw-dropping popularity despite annual predictions of its imminent decline. Most observers believe that “Idol” will eventually lose a bit of mojo, but argue that trying to predict just when that’ll happen is futile.

“My ‘Idol’ predictions are hopelessly off, so I’ve stopped making them,” Metcalf says. “I think I’ll stick to trying to predict the weekend box office, which is easier.”

Another network wag says that two years ago, he was convinced “Idol” would weaken because the previous year’s finale had been lackluster.

“But it came back just as strong,” he says. “One of these years, it’s going to be down 5% or 8%, and everyone will say, ‘Hmmm, it’s slipping.’ But when that happens is anyone’s guess.”

Biggest wildcard with “Idol” ratings is the performers. While Fox shells out millions to make sure Simon, Randy and Paula return each year, there’s no way to guarantee that each new crop of singers will appeal to viewers.

As far as Fox is concerned, 2007 would be an awful time for “Idol” to slip.

Net has had another one of its now-patented fall fumbles, with none of its new shows yet demonstrating any hit potential. It also doesn’t have the Super Bowl this year, robbing it of the extra ratings cushion the big game provides.

Bottom line: In order to make a run at first place in demos, Fox needs “Idol” to return as strong as ever.

Fox execs declined comment for this story. Last month, however, the net’s scheduling czar, Preston Beckman, said the combination of “Idol’s” return, a new season of “24” and a plethora of college and pro pigskin games promises to once more transform Fox from fall also-ran to a spring swan.

“We have two nights of ’24,’ then two nights of ‘Idol,’ ” he says. “By Thursday morning, we’ll find ourselves competitive again.”