“American Idol” returns Sunday on ABC. I thought I would spend the week sharing some of my recollections of my involvement with the show. The story below is based on a post on my blog, Revenge of the Masked Scheduler, which I have added to for all of you. I’m looking forward to seeing how it does both in the ratings and creatively. Here we go …
This Thursday [April 7, 2016] at the Dolby Theater, the 15th “American Idol” will be announced and then the show goes away … at least for the moment. That’s about 40 hours of programming FOX will have to come up with and, honestly, if you play the odds, the new hours will not deliver a 2.0 L+SD rating in 18-49s, and those hours might not be a whole lot cheaper. But that’s Fox’s dilemma to deal with. I don’t work there anymore. I did for 15 years, and for most of that time, “American Idol” was a big part of my professional life.
I started at FOX in June 2000, and in September 2001 the world changed. I will always believe that the events of Sept. 11 had a lot to do with why “American Idol” resonated with the viewers. It’s not like there hadn’t been other talent shows on the networks. I still remember telling the Masked Daughter about “Idol,” and she stared at me and said ‘Dad, that’s ‘Popstars,'” which was a little show on The WB at the time. She did not seem all that excited.
Rupert Murdoch was excited about “Pop Idol,” which was a big hit in England. His daughter Liz sold him on it, and Rupert told our FOX Entertainment chiefs, Sandy Grushow and Gail Berman, and our head of unscripted, Mike Darnell, that we better think about buying it. Rupert told them they needed to make it as big as it was in the U.K. To be honest, we were all a bit skeptical.
My first involvement with the show was attending a meeting in Sandy’s office with Simon Fuller, who was the head of 19 Entertainment at the time, and possibly Cecile Frot-Coutaz from Freemantle. To Sandy Grushow’s credit, he insisted that we would not do the show unless Simon Cowell was assured to be one of the judges. We had seen Cowell’s antics on the British version, and since this was FOX, we needed someone who would give the show some edge.
We continued to be skeptical about simply replicating the show in the States. In January, as we began planning for “Idol’s” premiere post-May sweeps, we had a meeting with Rupert Murdoch. During the meeting, the discussion turned to the show that we now called “American Idol.” Mike Darnell was going over some of the changes that we were planning to make to the British format. Rupert was not happy and told Mike, in no uncertain terms, to keep the format as it was. I think the term “you Americans” was used at some point as Rupert was pounding the desk.
Well, we did stick to the British format, but with one exception. “Idol” was scheduled to premiere in the summer, and sometime in the early spring I got a call from Mike asking me if I was around and would I stop by his office. I come over to his office. There was a problem. Simon Fuller, Nigel Lythgoe and possibly Cecile and Ken Warwick were with Mike. Ken and Nigel were the “Idol” executive producers.
Since “Idol” was a competition show based on viewer voting and the United States had four time zones (five if you include Hawaii), Idol could not replicate the British formula. In the U.K., the viewers vote and the show returns to the air later in the evening for the results. Mike and I went over the difference between network and affiliate time and all the issues involved with that. We played around with different solutions, such as excluding the West Coast from participating in the voting.
Finally, I threw out the idea of a second show that would air the next night. I suggested a half-hour results show, and since “Idol” was coming on in the summer, and I was the head of scheduling, I was certain I could figure out how to get it on the schedule. Of course, there was a money issue with the additional hours, but Mike and I pitched the results show to Gail and Sandy, and they agreed we needed to include the whole country in this show. My moment in TV history.
“American Idol” is a show in four parts. There are the auditions, followed by “Hollywood Week,” the “middle round” and finally the competition. One of the smart moves Gail Berman made as we were starting on this journey was to add Wenda Fong to the team that would manage the show for FOX. Wenda was not part of Mike Darnell’s posse, but she was an adult who would make sure that the trains were running on time. Wenda would handle all the details of the show (and there were many), and that allowed Mike to focus on the creative. Wenda continued in that role for virtually the entire run of the show.
As the auditions began, we started to get nervous that no one would show up. My daughter was in high school, and when the auditions were in L.A., I gave her flyers to put all over her school. We were starting to feel a bit desperate. Fortunately, talent was showing up in the cities, and little did we know that the auditions would become the most popular part of the show.
I always separated the auditioners into three groups: the talented, the consciously bad (those who came to the auditions for the attention, knowing they will not be selected) and the delusionally bad (those who have been told they have talent when they don’t). I will return to this later, but as the number of audition hours grew, we struggled and disagreed over the right mix of these groups.
We announced a schedule for “Idol” and started to promote the show with scenes from the auditions. The promos mostly focused on Simon Cowell eviscerating young performers. Often it was well-deserved. It was the classic way FOX promoted most of its product. We were never big on heart. At some point Mike gave me rough cuts of the auditions, and I brought them home to share with my family. We were amazed at how moving several of the auditions were. One would never know it from the promos.
I told Mike and Sandy that there was another sell to this show that pushed the emotions. Not everyone wanted to see innocent young singers being “bullied” by Cowell. We added some emotional spots, and I would like to believe that helped us to broaden out the potential “Idol” audience.
“Idol” premiered June 11, 2002, and the wild ride started. The initial numbers were good, but we didn’t think we had a phenomenon on our hands. The auditions and Hollywood Week lasted a week each. We felt that we needed to get to the competition. After what we called the Middle Rounds and a Wild Card show, we were down to ten finalists. Within eight weeks we were done. The whole show was 22 1/2 hours.
I knew we were in good shape when I heard Kelly Clarkson sing. She was everything you could hope for in a show that was asking America to pick a singing superstar. The key to reality TV is authenticity, which is the hardest thing to maintain over time. Kelly, Ruben and Clay, Fantasia and Carrie Underwood — we were fortunate to start off this phenomenon with authentic unknowns. Like many of these shows, at some point “American Idol” starts to feel manufactured.
Anyway, the ratings kept building and building, and we realized we had something very special on our hands. About halfway through the finals, I was vacationing in Maui and I ran into Gail Berman, who was there with her family. We high-fived each other and went out for a celebratory dinner. We both knew that as exciting as this all was, the hard work was just beginning. We saw what happened at ABC with “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” and we knew that we had to quickly figure out a plan for making this show part of our schedule for years to come.
To be continued …