Before I talk about the final seasons of “American Idol,” I thought I would provide a glimpse into how we approached scheduling the show.
I wore two hats while at FOX. I was the head of both scheduling and research. As soon as the “Idol” season was over, we would start a series of focus groups to help us understand how the fans of the show felt about the just completed season. We would do groups of hard-core and lapsed viewers of the show and ones of people on the fence about continuing. We wanted as many diverse opinions as possible. These groups were done all over the country, and we focused primarily on women 12-49.
These groups were invaluable, and many of the insights were then shared both internally as well as with the producers at an annual retreat. I would generally start off the first morning of the retreat with an extensive research presentation, which would cover both the ratings and the qualitative research.
In addition to the focus groups, we had a weekly panel of “Idol” viewers so we could track threat reaction after every week and see correlations between content and enjoyment of the show. We would also do content analysis of the auditions to evaluate the mix of types of auditions. This actually came in handy, as you will see on Friday.
One piece of data that I do believe had an effect of the producers was a chart that I put together showing the correlation between the diversity of the finalists and the ratings among the various ethnic groups as tracked by Nielsen. Over time “American Idol” was becoming “whiter,” and it was reflected in the ratings trends among the different ethnic groups. The correlation was astounding, and an effort was made to again make the show a bit more diverse.
The ratings analysis showed that “American Idol” was following the typical pattern of most other unscripted franchises and TV shows in general: The longer on the air, the older the audience. The teen demographic was the first to leave a show, not only because they were searching for something new, but also simply because they were a small demographic and every year a chunk of them became 18-34s. This is the old cohort vs. demographic dilemma. We are programming for cohorts, but when we treat them as a demo, we miss a lot of the subtlety of how people consume television.
After the research was presented, the producers, along with Mike Darnell, our head of unscripted, and whoever his boss was at the time would begin to discuss the format for the following season and other creative issues.
Once everyone agreed on the format for the new season and there was agreement on the number of hours the show would occupy on the FOX schedule, Mike and I would get together and try to lay it out on a scheduling grid. For me there was always the balance between making sure “Idol” had the schedule that would best serve the show and trying to provide opportunities for some series to benefit from the “Idol” rub.
I needed to spread out the show so that it started during the NFL playoffs, so it could get the push in football and pair up with our four-hour premiere of “24.” On the other end, “Idol” needed to end on the last night of the May sweep. We would then figure out the number of hours needed for each part of the competition and put it all on the grid. Then we’d have to determine if we could do the show everyone wanted to do in the agreed upon hours. Often, we need to go back and ask for some additional hours, which was always fun.
After we resolved “Idol,” I would lay out the other series on the schedule so that the current executives could supply the showrunners with airdates and also inform the lucky ones whether they would get the “Idol” rub. My last official scheduling act at FOX was to suggest that we pair “Empire” up with “Idol.” “Empire” was my favorite pilot (along with “24”) while I was at FOX, and I knew it was a show that could benefit from the pairing. Little did I know it would grow from its “Idol” lead-in.
For years, the competition kept thinking that we would move “American Idol” from its Tuesday/Wednesday slots to Wednesday/Thursday. Around November of each year, I would start getting angry calls from the other networks asking me if we had made a decision on the “Idol” days. They were waiting to find out before they would set their midseason schedules. I would tell them that nothing was changing. They never believed me. It could be in part that I was having some of our junior execs out there spreading rumors. I never said I didn’t play hardball.
There’s a funny story about how we made the decision to finally move the show to Wednesday/Thursday involving Darnell, Peter Rice and me, but I’ll save that for another day.
So that’s sort of the process for programming “Idol.” Friday I’ll go through the final years, or what I called the death by a thousand cuts.