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AT&T Hangs Up On ‘American Idol’ Sponsorship

Charter sponsors Coca-Cola and Ford remain as Fox cites strong ad interest despite show's maturing audience

AT&T is cutting its longstanding ties with Fox’s “American Idol,” severing a sponsorship that has lasted 12 years, while the program grapples with ratings declines and age.

“We’ve been proud to be a part of this groundbreaking TV series for the past 12 years,” the company said in a statement. “We wish our friends at ‘American Idol’ continued success.” A spokesman declined to comment on the business reasons for the split.

Just last March, AT&T told Variety that “Idol” was “the ultimate wish-fulfillment show, and remains a powerful platform for AT&T to connect directly with our customers.” The show’s 13th season was expected to debut Wednesday night.

The telecommunications giant’s departure is the latest signal that “American Idol’s maturity has dampened some of its luster, even as it remains one of the nation’s most popular programs. In recent seasons, its ratings have fallen significantly, so much so that programs like CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory,” NBC’s “The Voice” and ABC’s “Modern Family” reached more viewers on average last season in the demographic most coveted by advertisers, people between the ages of 18 and 49, according to Nielsen.  Meantime, the median age of the show’s viewers has steadily increased – to more than 51 years in its 12th season, according to Nielsen, up from 31.9 years in its first season back in 2002.

That dynamic has reduced the price Fox has been able to charge advertisers for the show. The average price of a 30-second ad in “American Idol” this season came to $281,000 for Wednesday episodes and $257,926 for Thursdays, according to a Variety survey of commercial prices for the 2013-2014 season. Just last year, “Idol’ was securing an average of $340,825 for Wednesdays and an average of $296,002 for Thursdays.

In 2009, Fox took in approximately $849.6 million in TV advertising related to “Idol,” according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. By 2011, that figure fell to $731.8 million, rebounding somewhat in 2012 to $836.4 million.

To be sure, executives at Fox and its corporate owner, 21st Century Fox, have been candid about the need to shake up the program.  Viewers who tune in tonight will see a new panel of judges, consisting of Harry Connick, Jr., Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez, the last making a return to the venerable competition program after serving as a judge in 2011 and 2012. “Idol” also has a new executive-producer team, including Per Blankens, the exec producer of the Swedish version of the show for the past five years.

Advertiser demand for “Idol” remains robust, said Jean Rossi, exec veep of sales for Fox Broadcasting. “Sales were strong during the upfront for ‘Idol.’ There were no issues,” she said in an interview. “It wasn’t as if people were saying, I don’t want to buy ‘Idol.’ It was the exact opposite.” Fox has the sense that a shake-up at the show has advertisers “rooting” for the program, she said.

By breaking with “Idol,” AT&T is leaving a program that helped take what was once an avant-garde means of communication and transformed it into mainstream behavior. AT&T was the sponsor that asked fans to vote by text message for their favorite “Idol’ contestants. When the company once known as Ma Bell first made such stuff available it seemed slightly futuristic. These days, texting is decidedly old hat.

Fox said two other veteran “Idol” sponsors – Coca-Cola and Ford Motor Co. – would return for the show’s thirteenth season, slated to begin Wednesday evening. Segments featuring Ford vehicles and “Idol” finalists are expected to be featured in segments in the program’s Thursday-night episodes. Ford is also expected to launch a new online promotion that gives fans a chance to win a prize package. Coca-Cola is expected to run ads on TV and online and will have its regular cups emblazoned with Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero references on the judges’ table throughout the season.

The automaker has in recent seasons pared its spending on the program. Where Ford once held forth on both “Idol” airings each week, it has in the past two seasons limited itself to Thursdays. Fox has in turn allowed other auto sponsors, including Hyundai, into the show. When Ford spent more heavily, that would have been impossible.

The 21st Century Fox-owned network has not brought on a new exclusive telecommunications sponsor, said Rossi, but ‘Idol’  is likely instead to include advertising from a range of marketers in the category.

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