Mel's Diner: Fremantle Cecile Frot-Coutaz: In Search of the Next American Idol

Mel's Diner: Fremantle Cecile Frot-Coutaz: In Search of the Next American Idol
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WHO: Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO, FremantleMedia North America; executive producer, American Idol
WHERE: Barsac Brasserie, North Hollywood, Calif.
WHEN: Monday, Feb. 23, 2009, lunch

THE DISH: Barsac Brasserie is louder and more crowded than usual, says Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America, as she sits down to lunch. She likes quiet restaurants. “My voice doesn’t carry,” she says, so she is not a fan of noisy places where she has to yell. “Then my voice cracks and it’s a disaster.”

This CEO knows a thing or two about disastrous — and triumphant — voice performances. She’s also executive producer of American Idol, which in its eighth season is still the most-watched U.S. TV series by all measures.

However, the pressure is on, perhaps now more than ever, for Frot-Coutaz to find the next American Idol. “When you run a company like this, your shareholders expect growth,” she says. “These content-creation businesses, they’re hit-driven. If you lose a big show, it takes time to replace it.”

Certainly, Idol can’t gleam forever. Take judge Simon Cowell, whom Frot-Coutaz calls the “star of the show.” “He has been pretty vocal about the fact that he’s thinking about what he wants to do next,” Frot-Coutaz says. “It’s tough. He’s been doing this for a long time, but by the same token it’s a big part of who he is.”

Frot-Coutaz expects Cowell and all major players in Idol – including judge Paula Abdul, who’s in the last season of her current deal — to remain on board for at least a few more years. But if Idol is going to feel the recession’s impact, she believes it’ll be in season nine.

“I actually think in some ways this next year is going to be worse,” Frot-Coutaz says, explaining that the production, and big sponsorships deals, get rolling in July and August. Deals for season eight were sewn up before the economy cratered in September and October 2008.

Even as pinched marketers demand more accountability, the show’s reach and return insulate it to a degree. Frot-Coutaz has the evidence, from Dreyer’s ice cream sales shooting up to record-setting sales with partner iTunes last season. But one can’t be too prepared.

So she is taking new, diversified shots. “The bottom line is, there hasn’t been anything groundbreaking in a while,” she says. “It’s going to catch us by surprise. All you can do is place enough bets in different areas.”

She is in the process of hiring someone to head up a new scripted division, particularly to launch cable series that can feed the international market. The European appetite for American dramas has increased of late, so she made the pitch to her bosses.

OLDIES BUT GOODIES

Fremantle also is mining the company’s vast Goodson-Todman game show library. GSN has the rights to air a few titles, but Frot-Coutaz’s team is working on a separate project to make classics available to viewers.

They are also in development on an element of 1950s game show Double Dare. “Maybe as a whole, some of these games weren’t that successful, but you can take from the elements that did work,” she says.

Updated versions of classic hits are performing as well. International sales for the new Password, which launched last spring in the U.S. on CBS, are taking off.

The company, which was built on acquisitions, also last month acquired Deadliest Catch producer Thom Beers’ Original Productions.

All the while, Frot-Coutaz remains focused on diligently protecting Idol, especially when it comes to preserving its event status by not streaming it online. “As soon as you can watch the next morning, you dilute the event proposition,” she says.

She discussed streaming with Fox when the network launched Hulu, but “Fox doesn’t push us,” she says. Right now, “The best thing is that people tune into Fox at 8 p.m.”

The executive says she is “fundamentally optimistic about the next few years” for her company. Being in unscripted television, which can be produced cost-effectively, and having international backing puts Fremantle “in the most protected end of the business.”

That doesn’t mean Fremantle won’t be affected. Rather, she considers creating solutions for primetime’s troubled economics a responsibility. “[The networks] need their marquee shows that they have money for, then they have slots to fill with other stuff that doesn’t break the bank,” she says. “We need to come up with ways to help solve the problem.”

DINED ON: In France, where Frot-Coutaz is from, professional people go out to lunch. Period. “In Paris, when I was working there, you would never have a sandwich at your desk, I mean like never,” she says. “That is really just so uncool, so unsophisticated.”

Restaurants in France move quickly at lunchtime, getting patrons in and out in 45 minutes and offer great plates du jour (daily specials), she says. Barsac, which has a French-inspired menu and combo salad specials at lunch, “doesn’t replicate that, but it’s a substitute,” Frot-Coutaz says.

She orders the salad special with beef; I pick the trout with beurre noir (translation: butter!). We are both quite happy with our choices.

Generally, Frot-Coutaz finds the L.A. restaurant scene lacking. “For the most part you don’t find in L.A. a lot of great restaurants,” she says. “San Francisco is good. But in L.A., the portions are too big. The food is not the star of the show — it’s the people, it’s the room, it’s the ambiance or scene. But it’s very rarely about the food.”

When I ask about French food in particular here, she at first scrunches up her face, then offers a few kudos: Melisse in Santa Monica is “very good” (has a good name too); and La Cachette “is good in a stuffy, very old-fashioned way.”

She also says she likes Providence, among L.A. restaurants.

What she misses from France that she can’t find here is good bread, she says: “Just simple, authentic, good, and not too much of it.”

She cooks a lot herself on the weekends. “I drive all over town to find the right kind of butter or the ingredients,” she says. An American Idol producer should know how to put on a good search, and usually she does manage to turn up the winning ingredients.

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