It was fall 2012, about 10 days before the heavily promoted premiere of Simon Cowell’s new singing competition The X Factor on Fox. NBC suddenly announced that Season 3 of The Voice, which had been gaining ground on Fox’s incumbent American Idol as the top singing reality show, will expand its regular two-night Monday-Tuesday premiere to three nights. The newly scheduled Wednesday Voice episode was going directly against the series debut of The X Factor which featured pop star Britney Spears as a judge. Cowell ripped NBC’s move, calling it “mean spirited” and “tactical.”
Five and a half years later, we have ABC’s heavily promoted “revival” of American Idol with pop star Katy Perry a a judge less than two years after the series’ farewell on Fox. And about 10 days before its Sunday, March 11 premiere, Fox announced a surprise two-hour special, O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession?, to air directly against the Idol debut. The special is culled from video of O.J. Simpson interviews that were to be used for the previously scrapped 2006 Fox special If I Did It, based on a book that featured him discussing the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
Over the past week, Fox has made a big push for the special, running promos, planting exclusive video clips from Simpson’s “confession” and doing press interviews. Meanwhile, ABC’s marketing campaign for Idol has been hampered in the home stretch by the resurfaced sexual harassment accusations against host Ryan Seacrest.
There is obvious bad blood behind Fox’s move against the Idol opener. Fox brass had called the producers’ efforts to resurrect the reality series so quickly after its final season on Fox “fraudulent.” The network also made a serious play for the new installment but was rebuffed, with FremantleMedia North America steering it to ABC.
While there is no expectation for the O.J. Simpson special to beat American Idol the way The Voice topped the first hour of The X Factor in their 2012 clash, Fox’s goal is to put a dent into its premiere. It is the kind of gamesmanship that networks used to employ to intimidate the competition — for instance, NBC in 2001 supersized its biggest Thursday night comedies to crush its rivals.
But that was when schedules mattered, as most of the viewing was done live. We will find out when Sunday night ratings come out on Monday morning whether, in the era of cord-cutting and on-demand viewing, aggressive counter-programming still works.