Although we still did not quite know what we had on our hands after the first season of “American Idol” the first major decision we made at FOX was to have “Idol” be an annual event. We decided to bring it back in January on Tuesday and Wednesday nights to coincide with the NFL Playoffs and take advantage of the promotional opportunities in the games.
We expanded “Idol” to 36 hours and added a few specials. We knew we had gold in the auditions, so we increased the audition nights to start off the show. We went to 12 finalists and expanded several of the results shows to an hour. The other networks criticized us for increasing the number of hours and expanding results shows. Of course, once they found success in the reality competition space, they did the very things that they criticized us for doing. Because several of these shows ran twice a year, they were actually often doing more hours than we were.
As Season 2 of “Idol” approached, we were starting to get anxious. It’s one thing to have a summer success, but now we were moving the show into the season against big-time competition. I remember Mike Darnell, Gail Berman and I joked about having a pajama party at the office so we would all be together for the premiere night overnights. We didn’t, but I came to the office early the morning after the premiere, and there was Gail. The numbers stunned us.
As we were preparing for the return of “American Idol,” we also had another little something in our back pocket waiting to unleash on the viewing public. Mike Darnell and his team came up with the FOX version of “The Bachelor,” where a down-on-his-luck guy would masquerade as a millionaire and woo a group of unsuspecting women until eventually revealing to the lucky winner that he was not who he claimed to be.
I don’t think we could get away with it today, but “Joe Millionaire” was ready to come on in January 2003. “Joe Millionaire,” “Idol” and the second season on “24” gave us the firepower for FOX to win its first sweeps in its history.
We stayed around 37 hours of “Idol” for the next two seasons but made a significant change to the format in Season 4, when we made the middle round of the show a “Boy/Girl Round.” We wanted to insure a more even gender split among the finalists. This move was in response to the strength of the women singers in Season 3, when eight of the 12 finalists and five of the final six singers were women.
Simon Fuller came in one day to pitch the boy/girl change as well as the judges’ save, where the panel could override the voting once during the season. We had a rather heated discussion about both ideas. We agreed to the boy/girl change but held off the judges’ save for several seasons.
To do the boy/girl transition correctly we needed more hours, but of course with success comes conflict. We could not make the deal for more hours of “Idol” so we needed to tape the middle round in order to get all the singers in within the allotted time. This resulted in one of our first crises, as we put the wrong phone numbers for viewer voting on the contestants. Had we been live, we could have corrected the mistake quickly. Because we were on tape, we discovered the problem when my scheduling partner MJ Lavacarre started receiving angry emails during the east coast airing of “Idol.”
Several of us spent a long night at the office as we tried to figure out how to handle this screw-up. Although we were often criticized for “fixing” the show, I can tell you we never did. We wound up repeating the performances the following night with the correct numbers on the screen. That’s when I realized we needed a phone tree to handle emergencies like this.
Season 4 of “Idol” was memorable in several ways. We had our biggest success story in Carrie Underwood. We started our run as the No. 1 network in the 18-49 demographic. We added “House” to the schedule, which was the most successful scripted series ever coming out of an “American Idol” lead-in. Finally, that year we moved “24” to Monday night and aired it without interruption through its season run.
We called that the “shock and awe” part of our schedule. Sunday (often leading out of an NFL playoff game) and Monday was four hours of “24,” and then Tuesday and Wednesday had four hours of “American Idol” auditions. Wherever we ranked season-to-date among the broadcast nets (generally third or fourth), that changed pretty quickly.
What all the networks find when they have a mega-hit is that it’s hard to launch other hits behind it. We were fortunate to have “House.” “The Bernie Mac Show” worked well behind “Idol,” but we quickly opted to give “The O.C.” the “Idol” push. “Idol” had a strong African-American audience for a lot of its run, and “The O.C.” was one of the most vanilla shows on our schedule. I fought hard to give “Bernie Mac” the “Idol” lead-in but lost that battle.
“Bones” also flourished from the “Idol” rub and had the added benefit of being a show that we owned. To be honest, what worked best behind “Idol” were other reality shows that commanded a lower CPM (cost per thousand) than scripted entertainment. Bottom line: We were not much better than the other networks at taking advantage of a smash hit to launch other hits.
We were now on a roll. For me Season 5 was the best season ever. We had the first of a run of mediocre winners in Taylor Hicks, but Season 5 had the deepest bench of contestants both in terms of talent and character. We also hit upon the right format, extending the hours of auditions and sticking with the boy/girl middle round. With several behind-the-scenes issues resolved, we were able to do the boy/girl rounds right for the next three seasons.
We would start with 12 girls and 12 boys and do two two-hour shows for three weeks, with a results show on Thursday. We would get down to the final 12, and the audience would have seen these finalists perform for three weeks before the finals began. It was the most effective strategy and gave us solid ratings for the 15 hours of the middle round.
To be continued …