Programming

'Idol' Scheduling Shift: So Far, So Good

Show’s move to Wednesdays and Thursdays, along with new judges, seems to be paying off for Fox 3/07/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Late on Friday, Nov. 19, 2010, around 7 p.m. Eastern time, Fox announced
a change in American Idol that would have far wider-reaching effects in the TV
industry than the departure of Simon Cowell as a judge—the network was
moving the decade-old franchise one night later in the
week, to Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Fox executives say the switch has turned out better
than expected. At press time, Idol was down 10%
in the adults 18-49 demo versus last year and down
4% in total viewers, mostly on par with the rate of
erosion the aging series has experienced over the past
few years. It’s a welcome resilience from a show going
through a year of change; Fox’s budget forecasts had
factored in “a significantly larger decline.”

And even execs at the rival networks grudgingly
acknowledge that while there is still some ratings erosion
year-over-year, Fox made the right call.

“It’s a decent move,” says one senior exec
at another broadcast network. “With Glee
standing on its own on Tuesday, they could
spread out the offense a little bit, so the move
might have helped the network overall.”

Madison Avenue seems to be on board as
well. “American Idol has been such a juggernaut,
it basically commands its audience”
whatever night it’s on, says Lyle Schwartz,
managing partner at GroupM. And that it
happens to be the expensive Thursday night
has major financial implications for Fox
down the road. At least for the midseason,
Fox has established itself as the top network
on Thursday night in the advertiser-coveted
18-49 demo.

Not an Easy Call

News of the scheduling shift came almost two months after Fox confirmed what
most TV insiders already knew—that Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez would join
Randy Jackson as the new Idol judging panel—in a literal media circus on Sept. 22.

But for all the ink spilled on Idol without Simon, the bigger change in season 10,
the move to Thursdays, had been gestating in Fox’s Los Angeles offices for about a
month and a half before Fox broke the news just before the Thanksgiving holiday.
It was a secret even network executives were surprised they were able to keep under
wraps for so long.

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The scheduling shift of Idol had been rumored
in years past, but Fox was hesitant to
move on it until recently. “Thursday has been a
very difficult night for Fox,” says Brad Adgate,
senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “For
years it was rumored Fox would move Idol to
Thursday, but they were always very protective
of the franchise.”

For the Fox executives involved in the decision—
including Fox Broadcasting Chairman
Peter Rice; Mike
Darnell, Fox president of alternative programming;

Entertainment President Kevin
Reilly and Preston Beckman, executive VP of
strategic program planning and research—the
timing of Idol’s move came down to two factors: The success of Glee on Tuesdays
and CBS’ move of Survivor to Wednesdays.

A few weeks into the 2010-11 fall season, it was clear that the sophomore Glee,
which enjoyed lead-in support from Idol in its first
year, had fi rmly established itself as a standalone hit
on Tuesdays at 8 p.m., building its ratings and viewership
by about 25%. “We were thrilled with the ratings
for Glee, and the thought of in January blowing up
Tuesday night—what’s the point?” Beckman says.

The strong Glee numbers solidified the case for
the move to Thursday, which CBS first opened the
door to when it announced in late July it was moving
Survivor back to Wednesday night. “Tuesday
was working for us, and we saw this opportunity
on Thursday to grab an audience that CBS, for valid
reasons, walked away from,” says Beckman.

The decision to move the top-rated show
in television wasn’t made in a single meeting,
however. Network execs began discussing
the possibility in early October, mapping out
what a Wednesday/Thursday Idol would look
like throughout the midseason and what the
consequences would be for other Fox shows.

Next the decision had to be endorsed
by the finance and sales people, and Darnell
had to get the Idol producers on
board. “The producers were going to have
some trepidation, but to their credit they
understood the logic of doing it…there was
no real resistance to it,” Beckman says.

And this new game plan may extend to
the fall as well. Next season Fox is set to
premiere The X Factor—an American version of Simon Cowell’s wildly popular U.K.
talent competition show—and a Wednesday/Thursday setup is the leading candidate
for where to slot the program, say Fox execs. And why not? If the new show approaches
Idol ratings levels—and some expect it may surpass them —the network
is looking at another possible decade of Thursday dominance.

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com
and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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