Reinventing 'Idol': Will The Reality Veteran Finish Up In The Ratings Without Simon?

On Thursday night, the American Idol episode that determined the show’s 13 finalists drew 25.3 million viewers and a 8.2/24 in adults 18-49, up a whopping 30% from the comparable night last year. After starting off down double digits from last season, the last one with star judge Simon Cowell, the singing competition has been consistently chipping away at last season’s ratings advantage, keeping its declines in the single digits and even slightly outperforming the corresponding 2010 episodes on a couple of occasions. “We have to pinch ourselves sometimes, I don’t think anybody expected it to go as well as it has,” Fox’s EVP program planning and research Preston Beckman said.

Indeed, the doomsday scenarios about Idol crashing and burning in the ratings without Simon did not materialize. Right now, Idol’s current tenth season is about even with Season 9 in total viewers and down moderate 7% in adults 18-49. After taking a dive in the ratings at the end of last season to the levels of its maiden summer cycle in 2002, could the veteran reality series reverse its down trend this year with a first season-to-season ratings bump since its ratings peaked in Season 5? “We feel that from this point forward we are tracking on par with where Idol was last year and maybe we could surprise ourselves and start to grow with the live shows,” Beckman said. Why is he so upbeat about the second half of Idol’s current season?

To understand that, we have to go back a year. Every season, as part its extensive Idol research, Fox conducts weekly online panels. A year ago, the ratings for the show’s early rounds were strong. But the research panels, which evaluate how interested and excited viewers are, were painting a different picture. “On every measure, the show was down dramatically,” Beckman said. Sure enough, “when we got to the completion rounds we saw the major decline of the ratings,” he added.

Things are very different this year, with the research pointing to excitement about the show coming back. Why?

First, the contestants. “We didn’t have showmen and showwomen last season,” Beckman said. “You never felt like you had a real competition.” This year, the feedback from viewers participating in the panels has been enthusiastic, with them saying that there are so many good singers going into the live shows that “we don’t know who is going to win.”

Secondly, the judges. Fox’s research last season showed that viewers hated having a four-person judging panel. The network took notice and reverted to a 3 judges. Then there was the summer judge panel overhaul prompted by the departures of Simon Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres. “We re-imagined it a way that resonates with the audiences,” Beckman said. He said viewers polled in the fall were skeptical about new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. But the attitude has since changed. “Baseline research indicates that the skepticism has all gone away,” he said. “People feel that Steven and Jennifer are more invested in the kids, have a  more nurturing attitude, and are feeling the music.”

Who gets the credit for what seems to be a successful reinvention of American Idol after 9 seasons and the departure of its signature star? Fox and the producers like to say it was a team effort and, in key aspects, it appears to be that way. For instance, I hear Tyler was a choice of Fox’s reality chief Mike Darnell who championed the Aerosmith frontman, while Lopez was suggested by American Idol creator/executive producer Simon Fuller. Fuller also is credited with bringing back Idol showrunner Nigel Lythgoe who has been overseeing a slew of rule changes this season that so far have largely worked.

The success of American Idol certainly puts more pressure on Cowell’s new singing reality series for Fox, The X Factor, which launches in the fall. At a recent appearance on NBC’s The Tonight Show, Cowell was asked by host Jay Leno what he thought about Idol‘s ratings strength following his departure. “I’m thrilled,” Cowell said sarcastically. “You always want to leave show and it does better, right?,” adding, “I’m like that with my friends: do well, just don’t do that well.”

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