'Idol’ Worship Continues


Everybody calm down. American Idol’s ratings may be off double-digit with young viewers, but the franchise is hardly in any kind of peril. Indeed, what’s ailing Idol, still by far the most popular show on TV, can be easily fixed by its next season. My prediction: The show will be even more a premium property this time next year.

Understandably, with such a ratings monolith, any sign of Nielsen weakness has journos rushing to ring the death knell. It makes headlines to be the first to declare that the once invincible Idol has seen better days. But there’s no need to cue up Chris Daughtry singing “Home” for this show.

The blame machine for what we’re supposed to view as some kind of perilous downturn in Idol worship is pointing fingers everywhere. Idol Enemy No. 1 is Howard Stern for touting Website votefortheworst.com and encouraging the loyal minions who listen to his Sirius show to cast their ballots for Sanjaya Malakar. Personally, I think, without the tone-deaf, ridiculously coiffed Sanjaya, Idol ratings would be even lower. It’s always good to have a contestant you love to hate.

I agree with those who say that what’s ailing Idol numbers among younger viewers is a group of finalists weaker than in seasons past. There’s simply less male and female eye candy than usual. Likewise, a paucity of rockers in the Bo Bice or Daughtry mold hurts the numbers with tweens and teens. Plus, two of the strongest voices of the lot, Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones, sound like singers you’d take your parents to see at the Café Carlyle when they’re visiting Gotham.

If there’s any cause for concern among those whose livelihoods depend on the show, it perhaps stems from the possibility that the troika of judges—Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson—will be broken up. There has been talk for weeks about clashes on the set between Cowell and some executives on the show. But isn’t that inevitabile with a singular talent like Cowell?

The acerbic Idol judge knows he’s the star among stars of the enterprise, and he’s happy to not let anyone forget it. He’s not shy about reminding all involved that he’s busy with other projects, such as America’s Got Talent, and a lucrative career as a record producer.

He has talked privately about walking away from the show, and he has famously claimed that, if Sanjaya wins, he would do just that. Now factor in an annual Idol salary that Forbes estimates at $36 million and the belief that Cowell’s pact will tether him to the show for three more seasons. Stranger things have happened, but it doesn’t sound to me like Simon’s leaving anytime soon.

The same can absolutely be said for the healthy Idol franchise. Ratings are still huge, it provides seamless product-placement opportunities, and its draw is as cross-generational as anything on primetime. Plus, Idol remains relatively TiVo-proof.

The key problem of lower youth appeal among the finalists will be easily solved next season when the initial selection is up to Cowell, Jackson and Abdul. Early on, they can skew the sample. Believe me, they know that’s the issue, and they’ll address it.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake here. Idol virtually props up the entire network; as a promotional vehicle for the rest of the Fox lineup, it is invaluable (see under “5th Grader, Are You Smarter Than a?”).

Even if Sanjaya, pony-hawk and all, ends up being voted “American Idol,” it won’t yank the show that put him there from the top of the charts.

E-mail comments tobcrobins@reedbusiness.com