David Hill is no stranger to tackling big events, but that doesn’t make his new job any easier.
The former Fox Sports chairman has been tapped to oversee Fox’s “American Idol” and “The X Factor,” both of which are in turmoil, struggling through ratings and unfortunate publicity in the last year.
Thrown into the breach after the departure of Fox reality chief Mike Darnell, Hill doesn’t have the option of cashing out on one show — primarily “X Factor” — and focusing his resources on just veteran hit “Idol.”
The net and Hill, then, are stuck with both shows at least in the near term, compounding viewer fatigue in a genre where NBC’s “The Voice” has become a formidable player.
Fox is clearly treating “Idol” as priority No. 1, with a series of sweeping changes. Not only is Darnell gone, but longtime exec producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick have been shown the door, with Per Blankens stepping up to exec produce for FremantleMedia. Last season’s judges Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, and original judge Randy Jackson have also left.
Judge Keith Urban’s status on the show remains unclear, and the only sure thing “Idol” seems to have going is host Ryan Seacrest, who has remained steady on the program for a dozen seasons.
Hill’s appointment arrives after the Fox Sports vet virtually changed the face of live sports programming. Whether it’s the constant presence of a game’s timer and scoreboard on screen during a sports event, the brightly colored first-down lines in football or the cross-cutting camera angles of baseball broadcasts, Hill brought visual innovation to live sports and redefined the viewer’s experience.
As “Idol” and “X Factor” are often produced like live event programming, Hill’s sports chops will be well-suited for the skeins. As it is, Fox has announced a split-screen advertising initiative for “Idol” that underscores Fox’s efforts to market it as a live, must-watch event in the era of DVR.
Yet, “Idol” and “X Factor” won’t be saved with mere graphical bells and whistles. Hill’s achievements in the sports realm derive from offering sports fans informational power and a more visually-stimulating experience; but in the singing competition space, success is bought from judge chemistry, authentic storylines, and distinct formats.
Critics argue “X Factor’s” similarity to “Idol” diluted the franchise, although Fox has maintained there’s room for both.
Aside from the obvious need to find compelling judges for “Idol” (Jennifer Hudson is said to be in talks for a spot at the table), the real work may lie in retooling the format of “X Factor,” a lesser-known brand, in order to differentiate the two shows on Fox’s lineup.
A more intimate approach to auditions and judging would immediately distinguish “X Factor” from “Idol,” offer competitive edge against the Peacock’s “Voice,” and give new judges Kelli Rowland, Paulina Rubio and Lovato the chance to showcase their musical chops.
As for “Idol,” tinkering with the format will only be part of the process, particularly with a new showrunner and almost entirely new lineup of talent to introduce.
Hill has thus far been mum about any specific plans, but the clock is ticking for the former sports honcho, the ball is clearly in his court, with Fox hoping he scores.