After Reviving American Idol Last Year, ABC Tries to Expand the Brand This Season

Look for an added focus on the celeb judges, and more live shows

This season of American Idol will put more of a spotlight on judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan, as well as host Ryan Seacrest. Josh Vertucci/ABC
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Last year, ABC managed a feat that some of its broadcast rivals had doubted would be possible: successfully reviving American Idol, which had previously aired for 15 seasons on Fox.

While the new iteration wasn’t the megahit it had been early in its Fox run, the show performed solidly for ABC last season. Its Sunday episodes averaged a 2.1 rating in the 18-49 demo, and drew 9.6 million total viewers, while the Monday episodes averaged a 2.0 demo rating and 9.5 million total viewers (all ratings are in live-plus-7). Last May, the Idol finale actually beat its music competition rival, NBC’s The Voice, in the demo.

Now, as a new season premieres on Sunday, ABC is shifting its focus from reviving and reestablishing the brand, as it did last spring, to expanding it this year, in part by focusing more on celeb judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie, as well as host Ryan Seacrest.

After Karey Burke took over as ABC Entertainment president in November, she had two goals for Season 2. First off: an increase in episodes that aired live, coast to coast. “There will be more live episodes this season than last season [when three aired], which I think is what we can do better than anybody else,” said Burke.

Additionally, “I’ve been asking them to focus more on those judges, and Ryan. They are all gigantic stars in their own right, really compelling, wonderful storytellers and wonderful partners for the talent coming in,” said Burke. “So we are drawing them out more and using them more as part of the storytelling, and I’m looking forward to that.”

The show’s marketing campaign is also more judge-focused than last year’s was. The first time around, “we were focused on the authentic journey of the contestants, which is different from what they do on The Voice, which is always just judges joking around,” said Rebecca Daugherty, evp of marketing for ABC.

This year, “we’re leaning into that journey of the contestant again, but we’re also opening it up to having the judges and Ryan talk a little more about their journey, because we have some really fun footage from them and their travels along the way,” said Daugherty. “So we’re incorporating more of the judges, but in an authentic way, versus them just clowning around.”

While the overall campaign might focus more on the judges, the show’s contestants were the focus of the American Idol promo that ran during the Oscars, and featured Idol hopefuls from Sunday’s season premiere episode singing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”—a nod to the film Bohemian Rhapsody, which was nominated for five Oscars and won four—from the rooftop of L.A.’s Roosevelt Hotel.

With a year of Idol production now under its belt, the network is also working to incorporate the show throughout its portfolio. ABC aired a 30-minute promo special, American Idol: A New Journey Begins, a few hours before the Oscars last Sunday.

And the March 19 episode of ABC sitcom American Housewife will be Idol-themed, as daughter Taylor (played by Meg Donnelly) tells her parents that she wants to use her college fund to travel to L.A. and audition for Idol. The episode will feature guest appearances by the three Idol judges and Seacrest.

While the American Housewife/American Idol crossover was in the works before Burke came in to replace Channing Dungey at ABC (“I can take no credit,” said Burke), she “would love” to integrate Idol further into other network programming going forward.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.