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Fox Faces Challenge to Make ‘American Idol’ Sing

Fox Must Reinvent American Idol
Sophia Foster-Dimino for Variety

The red cups are off the judges’ table. Coca-Cola, which struck a landmark ad deal with Fox in 2002 that kept drinking cups emblazoned with the soft-drink company’s logos on the “American Idol” set, has dropped its sponsorship of the show just before it starts its 14th season.

“Coca-Cola and Fox have mutually decided to end their 13-year ‘American Idol’ partnership,” the advertiser and the network said in a statement. “We look forward to working together on new collaborations in the future.” Ford Motor, the last of what was once a troika of big “Idol” sponsors, will stay with the program, though it has trimmed its support in recent seasons. AT&T ended its “Idol” association in January.

The departure of Coke underscores the challenge Fox faces to rehabilitate the show in the eyes of viewers and marketers. The pressure is even greater with Fox having a down year overall, meaning the network is counting on the ratings boost delivered even by a diminished “Idol.”

The execs in charge of overseeing the show are convinced that for the most part, “Idol’s” fate hinges on contestants’ charisma-factor. To that end, producers took the step this year for the first time of mounting a private showcase for 48 finalists on Dec. 8 at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. Producers and judges wanted to see how the hopefuls performed in front of an audience before winnowing the field to 24.

“As many twists and turns as you can add and as many production techniques that you might change, television is about human beings relating to other human beings,” says David Hill, senior executive VP of 21st Century Fox, who oversees the program for the network. “This show is only ever going to be as good as the contestants, and whether America falls in love with any of them.”

The stakes are higher than ever for “American Idol” to rebound this year after last year’s collapse in the ratings — an inevitable decline after nine seasons as the No. 1 non-sports program in primetime. But there has been plenty of criticism that the Fox franchise has grown long in the tooth and in need of a major overhaul to remain vital. Ratings fell 27% last season, marking its third straight year of 20%-plus declines.

The volume of “American Idol” hours Fox will air starting Jan. 7 will drop from 55 last season to 41 in the coming year — a sign the network realizes the show has been wearing out its welcome with viewers.

Another key change for the 2015 season — the program’s 14th cycle on Fox —
is the addition of Scott Borchetta as a mentor/coach. Borchetta is the mogul behind Universal Music Group’s Big Machine label, home to Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, the Florida Georgia Line and the Band Perry. He’s renowned in the biz as having the ear and the eye to see the potential in a 14-year-old Swift, so his advice goes a long way with singers plucked out of an open-call audition.

“This is not somebody who says, ‘That was great,’ and goes away for the season,” says Trish Kinane, president of entertainment for “Idol” producer FremantleMedia North America. “From the moment (the 2015) Idol is crowned, (Borchetta) will be focused on working on that person’s career to help create another superstar. That’s not easy to do.”

Even without a massive rating rebound, “Idol” is likely to have a positive impact on Fox’s ratings performance this season, if only because the network has hit such a downturn this season. “Idol” won’t regain its past glory, but it can be a competitive show for Fox with a little luck and traction, notes Sam Armando, a senior VP at SMGx, a media-research unit of large ad-buyer Starcom MediaVest Group.

Advertisers have pulled back on the amount they are willing to pay to be in the show. The average price of a 30-second spot in the 2015 edition of the program’s Wednesday episode is $266,333, according to a Variety survey of primetime ad prices for the 2014-2015 TV season. That’s down 5.4% from this year’s average of $281,000. For Thursday’s airing, advertisers will pay an average of $249,566 for a 30-second ad, a 3.24% slip from this year’s average of $257,926.

Hill and Kinane are focused on a disciplined approach to making changes for the coming season. They share the feeling that the judging panel introduced in the 2014 edition — Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban — should be given another year to coalesce. That’s why they made no adjustments to the lineup for 2015 other than bidding adieu to longtime “Idol” personality Jackson.

“Last year’s panel worked really well,” Hill says. “It felt like Jennifer, Harry and Keith got on instantly (in 2014), and now it’s really gelling for them. It’s hard to get the right three people to work on the judges panel. It’s not as easy as, ‘Hey let’s just get three famous names.’ ”

Hill notes that “Idol” is not immune to the sea-change going on in television viewing. At its peak, the show was DVR-proof because of its competition aspect. But now, with so many viewers relying on DVR playback and VOD, the exec says the program should be judged on live-plus-7 ratings, not overnights.

“The overnight rating has become pretty much irrelevant,” Hill says. “I’m going to be more concerned with what’s going on with the L7, because we’ve got all of this multigenerational and multiplatform viewing. But if we’re really doing our jobs well, we’ll give them a reason to watch live again.”