Can American Idol’s Return Hit the Right Notes for ABC?

Network hopes the revival can challenge NBC’s The Voice

American Idol judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

ABC’s surprise revival of American Idol, which had ended its run on Fox in 2016 after 15 seasons, dominated last May’s broadcast upfront week. While ABC touted the pickup as a great fit for its network, its rivals publicly questioned the economics of the move.

“The price is so expensive, you need a 35 share to break even,” said CBS Corp. CEO and chairman Leslie Moonves. “That’s not going to happen.”

This week, ABC can finally prove its naysayers wrong with American Idol’s return, which the network hopes will allow it to climb out of fourth place among broadcasters in the adults 18-49 demo. The series made its ABC debut on Sunday night, with Ryan Seacrest returning as host and a new judges panel: Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. The show’s producers insist that while Idol won’t replicate its gargantuan ratings from early in its run—in 2003, its Season 2 finale drew a massive 38.1 million viewers and a 16.8 demo rating—there’s still plenty of gas left in its tank.

Two years ago, 13 million viewers watched Idol’s then-series finale, garnering it a 3.0 demo rating. “Those are healthy ratings. That doesn’t seem to me to be a show that needs to be off the air,” said Idol showrunner Trish Kinane, who is also president of entertainment programming for FremantleMedia North America. “It shows that people like it, viewers want to watch it and it’s a strong brand.”

“BB-8 from Star Wars auditioned, we started our auditions at [Disney World’s] Disney Springs and we’re going to have a Disney night of Disney songs, which we were never able to do before.”
Idol showrunner Trish Kinane

And a brand that, according to Kinane, is made even stronger thanks to its new home on the Disney-owned network. “The synergy makes a big difference,” she said. “BB-8 from Star Wars auditioned, we started our auditions at [Disney World’s] Disney Springs and we’re going to have a Disney night of Disney songs, which we were never able to do before.”

Idol’s new Disney connection helped convince buyers who were initially surprised by ABC’s decision to revive the show so quickly. “You have the strategic connection to the Disney brand, which makes sense,” said Nick Hartofilis, evp of national investment, Zenith. “You can make an argument that it will retain a similar audience of what it was doing when it left Fox, which would still make it a top 15 show. And if they make a couple of tweaks, it could hit the top 10.”

While ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey declined to share the network’s ratings estimates, a network source said that ABC would be thrilled with numbers similar to its final season on Fox.

The network said American Idol has been in high demand among advertisers this season, and 75 percent of its inventory for the season is already sold out, including half of the season finale. According to sources, 30-second spots are priced between $150,000 and $160,000.

This season’s official sponsors are Macy’s and Zyrtec, which will be integrated into the series and featured in digital and social extensions; Zyrtec’s partnership extends to Good Morning America and Live With Kelly and Ryan. “As long as it’s integral and organic to the show, we’re really happy to make that work,” said Kinane of the partnerships.

The Voice judges Adam Levine, Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton and Alicia Keys

In an aggressive scheduling move, ABC is airing Idol’s second night on Mondays, directly opposite The Voice on NBC, marking the first time the music competition series have faced off head-to-head.

The network, which says it is focused more on finding the best spot for Idol than trying to topple The Voice, had wanted to schedule Idol on two consecutive nights, which is standard for competition shows, said Andy Kubitz, evp, program strategy, planning and scheduling for ABC Entertainment. And thanks to Dancing With the Stars and the Bachelor franchise, “Monday night is a huge reality night for us, so it’s an already established ABC audience for reality programming,” he said.

Both networks say they’re ready for battle. “We feel that we have the incumbent show that people love, and we have an extraordinary new coach in Kelly [Clarkson], which we’re very excited about,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt. And Dungey noted, “Although they’re both singing competitions, they do have their differences, and we’re hoping they’ll be enough room for everyone to play.”

This story first appeared in the March 12, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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