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‘American Idol’ Revival: Is It ABC’s Hail Mary?

When ABC makes its upfront pitch to advertisers May 16 at Lincoln Center, it will no doubt make a big deal of its newest big deal. But the decision to revive “American Idol” is hardly being hailed as cutting-edge.

“Our network is bringing ‘American Idol’ back in a move that is being praised as the most original, groundbreaking idea of the year 2002,” Jimmy Kimmel joked on his ABC late-night show. He added, “HBO isn’t the only network airing ‘Leftovers,’ people.”

Kimmel cracks wise often at the expense of his home network. But his “Idol” jokes cut to some hard truths about the state of ABC.

The net will finish 2016-17 in fourth place in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo — its second consecutive fourth-place finish and fourth in five years. Recognizing the need for a turnaround, Disney-ABC Television chief Ben Sherwood last year fired the network’s entertainment president, Paul Lee, and replaced him with drama chief Channing Dungey.

The “Idol” gambit, however, is hardly a vote of confidence in the first scripted-programming slate developed on Dungey’s watch. For 2016-17, ABC ordered 13 drama pilots and 11 comedy pilots — more in either category than any other network. But with ABC committing to roughly 40 hours of “Idol,” most of those pilots are no longer necessary. “I was feeling pretty good about things until I heard about [‘Idol’],” one producer with multiple pilots in the mix at ABC told Variety.

According to insiders, “Idol” will likely premiere in March and air on Sunday nights. The end of the spring cycle of “The Bachelor” would open a slot on Monday evenings later that month for an hour-long weekly “Idol” results show. ABC is already heavily reliant on unscripted programming with its successful summer game shows, “The Bachelor” and its spinoffs, and the network’s other core reality franchise, “Dancing With the Stars.” Keeping “Idol” out of the way of those programs will require scheduling finesse. Comedies and dramas will inevitably be squeezed out in the process.

“Idol” presents a perception problem for ABC. The series was canceled by Fox prior to its 2016 run by new network chiefs Dana Walden and Gary Newman — longtime TV-studio heads who wanted to put their stamp on the network with scripted development. Scoring mixed results in that effort Fox made a late and aggressive bid to win “Idol” back even as producers FremantleMedia and Core Media Group were putting the finishing touches on a deal with ABC.

So, having foiled Fox, ABC is counting on 40 hours of another network’s castoff to shore itself up. ABC was aware of the baggage “Idol” came with when, earlier this year, it passed on Fremantle’s pitch for the show. But the network took another look last month while drafting contingencies for a possible Writers Guild of America strike. What ABC saw on second look was upside.

For eight consecutive seasons, beginning in 2003-04, “Idol” was the highest-rated show on television. Even in its final season, after its ratings had fallen off to the point that Fox no longer deemed it worth the financial commitment, “Idol” averaged a 2.2 Nielsen live-plus-same-day rating in the 18-49 demo and 9.1 million viewers. Those numbers pale in comparison with what “Idol” drew at its peak. But they’re more than respectable by current standards of steeply declining live ratings. A 2.2 would have made “Idol” the second-highest-rated show on TV the week of May 1.

Despite concerns about the show’s price tag, there are obvious steps ABC can take to control costs on “Idol,” starting with talent. With Ryan Seacrest — newly installed alongside Kelly Ripa on ABC morning show “Live” — nearing a deal to return as “Idol” host, the pressure to draw high-priced A-list artists as judges is lessened.

For ABC, a streamlined “Idol” that delivers a respectable fraction of the audience it once commanded would be a fine outcome — one worth the money spent, the head-scratching by fans and the consternation of the scripted creative community. But if the revived “Idol” falls flat, its legacy will be a wealth of second-guessing at ABC.

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

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