For me, Season 8 was the pivotal year for “American Idol.” The ratings were starting to decline, so there was a feeling among the powers that be that we needed to shake things up — and we did. We eliminated the boy/girl round of 24 and went back to a final 36, where groups of 12 contestants performed over three weeks. We added a fourth judge in Kara DioGuardi, thus telling the world Paula Abdul’s days were numbered.
After years of resistance on our part, we added the judges’ save to the show. We negotiated with the producers as to how deep into the show the save could be used, and we made sure that they stuck to it. Finally, the auditions, which were the highest-rated part of the show, were taking on a nasty tone, and it was being reflected in the ratings.
We did a content analysis on the auditions, dividing the segments into “good auditions” (authentic), “consciously bad auditions” (attention seekers) and “delusional auditions,” the last category being contestants who think they’re good enough to be on “Idol” but are ignorant as to how bad they are.
We found that the percentage of the auditions that could be categorized as “consciously bad” — people who the producers knew were awful but might either be entertaining or fodder for the judges’ abuse — was growing each year. Sixty percent of the auditions now fell into this category. I discussed this with Mike Darnell, and we shifted the mix back to better auditions. We saw an immediate uptick in the ratings, but to be honest, it was too late to significantly turn the show around.
For several years I would do a long and extensive research presentation to the core group of producers and FOX execs that would gather after the season ended. I would start every year with a chart showing the life cycle of the big reality shows on all the networks. It was inevitable that all these series, successful as they were, would start to decline. I would tell my colleagues that we had a choice. We can either let “Idol” crash and burn or bring it in for a soft landing. To be honest, I think we did a bit more of the former and less of the later.
By 2014 Mike Darnell had left FOX, and “Idol” brought in a new executive producer. At his request, I sent him my evaluation of what was going wrong with the show. I called it “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” My thesis was that there was no significant event that caused “Idol” to go into freefall, but rather it was the result of several decisions, which combined led to the 20 percent-plus declines over several seasons, starting with Season 11 in 2012.
Was there a moment when this all could have ended differently? Yes. It was when we delayed the launch of “The X Factor” by a year. We had a plan for transitioning Simon Cowell from “Idol” to “X Factor.” One day Fremantle told us that they needed to delay “X Factor” by a year, launching it in 2011 rather than 2010. That gave NBC the opening to introduce their singing competition.
“The Voice” was more akin to “The X Factor” than to “American Idol.” Had we been able to introduce “X Factor” when we planned to, “The Voice” would have looked like an “X Factor” rip-off instead of vice versa. This delay also kept Simon Cowell off the air for more than a year, and we could not execute a plan to possibly use him for part of the “American Idol” season. That was not the plan. “Idol” went from being THE singing competition to one of three, and well …
But let me end this by celebrating all that the people of FOX and its partners accomplished for over a decade. We created the Death Star, but I honestly believed we kept level heads during this moment in the history of the business. We did not go around the building high-fiving each other. It’s rare to create a cultural phenomenon, and we felt a responsibility to treat it with respect.
What I miss more than everything about the “Idol” years were the 5:30 a.m. calls Mike Darnell and I had during virtually the entire run of the show. Research reported to me, and I would get the preliminary ratings 15 minutes before they were released to a somewhat larger group. I would send them to Mike, and within a minute, my phone would ring and we were off on one of our long conversations about the numbers, “Idol,” the business and life in general. I will always cherish those calls.
I wish ABC all the best. They face a daunting task, and events beyond their control will make relaunching the show even more difficult than expected. I still don’t quite understand why FOX canceled “Idol.” It could still be performing about as well as several of the reality franchises the other networks have stuck with.
Before Mike left, we were on the brink of agreeing to a judging panel made up of former Idols. If listening to hours of focus groups told me anything, it was the love the fans of the show had for several of the early winners and runners-up. Had we gone through with that strategy and gone back to what made “Idol” a cultural phenomenon for over a decade … ifs and buts.