'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
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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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