American Idol and the executives from its network don't live in a Fox hole—they've seen the ratings. The numbers are down, but Fox execs aren't just standing around staring aimlessly off into space like Idol robo-contestant David Archuleta.
Now, let's be clear: It's comical that anyone thinks Fox should hit the panic button for a seven-year-old show that still gets 25 million viewers despite making kids sing Dolly Parton songs with a straight face.
I got my grubby little fingers on an online market research survey Fox put into play last week, and its execs are looking at every aspect of how to plug this ratings leak. The network has been doing online polling for three years because it is cheap and easy, but now the stakes are getting higher as viewership gets lower.
“We're not in denial,” Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman told me. “It's still the biggest show on TV, but that doesn't mean there are things we can't do. The feedback from this year you'll probably see on the show next year.”
The online survey asks basic questions like whether viewers like the show more or less than last year. But it is the specific questions that indicate where the network is targeting change.
Beckman told me months ago that Fox is looking at tweaking Idol's early stages next year, so that is nothing new. Therefore, the questions about the length and the tone of the auditions and subsequent Hollywood round are unsurprising.
But one question in the survey gives clues about one route they may be considering. The question asks, “Suppose the first few weeks of American Idol started in Hollywood with flashbacks of the auditions; would that increase or decrease your enjoyment of American Idol?”
Now I don't really understand what that means, and I watch the show every week. It sounds like some trippy thing from ABC's underrated prophet-drama Eli Stone. Then again, anytime you mention the word “flashbacks” and Paula Abdul is involved, good television will probably ensue.
While the survey probes whether there is too much or too little banter between the judges, other questions drill down specifically on host Ryan Seacrest. Is there too much Ryan? Is there not enough Ryan? Should he bring back “Seacrest Out!” to close every show? OK, that last one's not really in there, but you know my vote.
Beckman says the polling is used to probe countless what-if scenarios. And if the results go strongly one way or the other, they are taken to producers and Fox alternative chief Mike Darnell.
Several questions in the survey blatantly ask for new ideas, so this viewer will throw out a couple. First off, stop with the single-artist theme weeks. At least the ones with artists over the age of 142. I get that these are deals cut to coincide with new albums dropping like this week's Neil Diamond theme. But most of these contestants probably think “Sweet Caroline” was one of Elliot Spitzer's girls.
Also, my wife doesn't bring much enjoyment to my marriage, but she did point out recently that virtually every American Idol performance over the years is on YouTube. That got me thinking as Fox tries to remind everyone how good the talent is on this show, that it's time for a contest where fans can pick the best single performance of all time. It would present great digital tie-ins to drive Web and mobile traffic, and remind fans that the show's legacy is more Kelly Clarkson than Sanjaya.
For the record, my winner would be Carrie Underwood doing “Could've Been” by Tiffany in season four. Man, do I hope none of my golfing buddies read my column this week.
Ben Grossman's Left Coast Bias returned a week early to liberate him from a few days of newborn diaper duty.
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