“American Idol” was both the most challenging and most rewarding show of my scheduling career. It dominated the television landscape for more than a decade, and we always handled the show with respect.
I know that this is hard to believe, but we never got overly excited about having the behemoth on our schedule at FOX. We always stayed focused and realized that we had a heavy responsibility to keep the “Death Star” strong and vital. At NBC, we were a far more arrogant and haughty crew, but at FOX there was not a long history of success — there was even a bit of a fear of it among some of the long-time FOX execs. We never took “Idol” for granted.
Once we realized we had something beyond a hit on our hands, our first decision was to limit “Idol” to once a year. Next, we expanded the audition shows because we realized that those brought in more men. Once the competition started, the show generally skewed more female and older. We continued to add more hours to the show and permanently made the results show an hour. It wasn’t until the 10th season that we finally moved “Idol” to Wednesday/Thursday, after having gone Tuesday/Wednesday for the prior seasons.
We wanted to give ourselves more consecutive nights of scripted series, and we also wanted “Idol” on Thursday, which still was the most valuable night for advertisers due to theatrical and automotive money. Ratings for “Idol” were starting to dip, and we realized it was now or never in terms of the move. We weren’t expecting the show’s ratings to improve, and in the first season of the change they were fairly steady.
We had lots of fun threatening to move “Idol.” We would generally announce the “Idol” schedule in November, and I would get several nasty calls from the competition. Truth be told, in years prior to the move I encouraged some of the younger execs to spread the word that we were moving the show.
One of the traditions during the “Idol” years was, in the scheduling room, Rupert Murdoch would go up to the board and put “AI” on Sunday night. His thinking was that “Idol” was a family show, and Sunday 7-9 p.m. would be an ideal time period for it to reach that segment.
We would give Rupert the arguments against this move: We had an established block of animated series that gave us a unique 18-34 audience with a healthy dollop on men. It would require so many scheduling moves to accommodate “Idol” that it would probably bring down the schedule. We made it clear to Rupert that “Idol,” like all TV shows, was getting older. It was drawing more 50+ adults each season, and you can’t unscramble the egg in television. Finally, we felt that reality competition works better during the work week so that people could talk about it the day of and the day after the show.
Rupert wanted us to make the move, and as we did on other occasions, we sort of ignored him and waited for him to move on to something else. Well, Rupert will get to find out if he was on to something now that ABC has announced that its revived “American Idol” will air on Sunday nights starting in mid-March.
I have not talked to my pals over at ABC, so I’m pretty much in the dark on how this decision was made. I also have no idea about the structure of the show and whether it will go beyond May. As was the case with our Sunday, ABC has an established Monday night reality zone with “Dancing With the Stars” and the “Bachelor”/”Bachelorette” franchises. Putting “Idol” on Sunday will give them a solid two nights of reality completion. They have established structures on Tuesday through Thursday, so for them, Sunday makes sense.
I have no idea if they will be doing a results show. If they are, they may be smart to make it a half-hour and try to build a comedy hammocked between “Idol” at 8 and “DWTS” or “The Bachelor” at 9. Scheduling still matters.
My two issues with this move would be, as discussed above, less “water-cooler” conversation the day of the show and, secondly, starting it so close to daylight saving, time when TV usage levels dip. (In fact, people will set their clocks forward the night before “Idol’s” March 11 premiere.) This could be especially problematic on Sunday night.
I’m sure ABC has spent lots of time figuring this out, and I’m rooting for “Idol” to succeed because, honestly, I don’t know why FOX walked away from the show.
I hope I answered your questions. We never consulted Matt Groening about a Sunday “Idol” move because we never were going to do it. Also, I don’t think there is much overlap between NBA Playoffs and “Idol,” so there’s little promotional value for either show.
If you have more questions on this, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org and @maskedscheduler on Twitter.