Since American Idol's debut in the summer of 2002, Fox has been fearful of overexposing its most prized asset. Limiting it to once-a-year event status with no reruns has helped ratings soar each season for the amateur-singing show.
By carefully doling out Idol, produced by 19 Entertainment and rights holder FremantleMedia North America, Fox has maintained viewer demand—learning its lesson from when ABC played Who Wants To Be a Millionaire to death several years ago.
But that momentum will be tested this fall, when the off-net version of the series, called American Idol Rewind, debuts in syndication. Fox's syndication arm, Twentieth Television, steered clear, so the U.S. distribution rights went to Tribune Entertainment. It in turn licensed Rewind to its sister Tribune stations, which compete with Fox in top markets, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Tribune Entertainment declines to discuss how the reruns will affect the flagship or how the show's stratospheric ratings on Fox will affect Rewind. But stations have gotten behind Rewind, snapping up the repackaged reruns in more than 75% of the country.
Melva Benoit, senior VP of research for Fox, acknowledges that the jury is still out about the impact of reality- program reruns, most of which have had a short or nonexistent afterlife since fans already know the outcome. So rather than focusing on the competition that first-season winner Kelly Clarkson had to beat, Rewind will rely on unseen footage, funny moments and a broader cast of characters.
Benoit thinks the reconfigured reruns of the show will be a plus for Idol on Fox. “When [CBS'] King of Queens went into syndication, its network ratings popped,” she says. “It definitely helped Seinfeld [during its NBC run].”
Season one lacked the auditions, which focus on the worst and most outrageous singers. Adding them the next season helped lead Idol to new ratings heights in each of its subsequent four editions. The average audience for the first four episodes from each of the five seasons has soared, from 9.8 million total viewers at the outset to 23.4 million, 28.5 million, 28.7 million and now 32.5 million.
Over the years, Fox's Benoit has seen a “natural progression” of the format, with producers tweaking the episodes in the opening weeks to feature a better balance between the best and worst singers. “People want to see the good and the bad,” she says.
A little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll
By broadening its musical scope and appealing to more than just fickle teenage girls, the show has seen an expanding demographic base, with a growing number of men joining the Idol chorus of fans. Benoit attributes that to two of last season's contestants: rocker Bo Bice and country singer Carrie Underwood, who ultimately won. “A number of people who never checked out the show before are watching now,” she says.
But even the new rock and country contingents can't explain all of the show's phenomenal ratings growth, which Benoit credits to word of mouth and its ability to make household names out of unknowns, such as Clarkson and Clay Aiken.
With Idol knocking off everything that gets in its way, the question becomes whether it can stay out of its own way—and keep hitting those high notes in the Nielsen ratings.