Why Everything You Think You Know About American Idol Is Dead Wrong

Fox workhorse still a top earner

While ratings watchers last week predictably enacted the Friday morning ritual of gnashing their teeth and rending their garments over the state of American Idol, those who would suggest that the show is on its last legs are perhaps more delusional than William Hung.

If Idol is no longer the event horizon of broadcast television, an inescapable black hole that sucks GRPs out of the prime-time firmament, it remains one of the single most valuable assets on the tube.

Now in its 12th season on Fox, Idol is averaging 13.3 million total viewers and a 3.9 in the all-important adult 18-49 demo, down from the 16.3 million viewers and 5.4 rating it averaged at this point in Season 11.

Idol also trails Season 4 of NBC’s The Voice, which through 11 episodes is averaging 13.5 million viewers and a 4.6 in the dollar demo. Were the season to end today, Idol would be ranked fifth among all prime-time series, following on the heels of NBC’s Sunday Night Football (8.2 in the demo), CBS’ The Big Bang Theory (5.3), The Voice and ABC’s Modern Family (4.4).

Idol’s best days are behind it. But its ratings declines are nothing new, and in some ways can be seen as a function of the hamstrung music market. The show hit its zenith in Season 5, when it delivered a jaw-dropping 30.3 million live-plus-same-day viewers and averaged a gaudy 12.4 in the demo. That was seven years ago, when total record sales (CDs, vinyl and digital) added up to 618.9 million units. Per Nielsen SoundScan, artists in 2012 shifted half as many units (316 million). 

Although Idol’s eight-season run as the most-watched show on television came to an end last year—Sunday Night Football usurped it with an average draw of 20.7 million viewers—advertisers remain fiercely loyal to the show. According to SQAD’s NetCosts data, the average unit cost for a 30-second spot in Idol was $432,975 in the first quarter of 2012, while time in the final 16 episodes of Season 11 averaged out to $491,781 a pop.

All told, last year’s flight of Idol episodes generated a TV-high $836.4 million in ad revenue. According to Kantar Media, that was about $100 million more than what the show raked in during Season 10.

This season saw :30s drop to just under $350,000 apiece, making Idol the second most valuable environment on broadcast behind the National Football League. Per SQAD, with an average unit cost of $589,000 per 30-second spot, Fox’s late game was the priciest buy on the tube, topping SNF ($500,000). Football managed to hold off the zombie invasion; spots on AMC’s The Walking Dead fetched as much as $400,000 a pop in late Q1 scatter.

If Fox can keep official sponsors Coca-Cola, Ford and AT&T happy, there’s no reason to think that the marketers won’t return to the Idol fold for Season 13. Ford and Coke have been partnering with the show since its inception in 2002, while AT&T has been on board for 11 seasons, many of them under the old Cingular Wireless banner.

That said, it’s unlikely that any final decisions will be made on the official sponsorship front until the 2013-14 broadcast season is well underway. Fox waited until the Jan. 16 premiere before officially announcing that the trio of backers would be in the mix for Season 12.  

In the meantime, the next American Idol will be unveiled in three weeks, with the season finale set to air on May 16. However things shake out, expect more changes on the judges’ panel, as pricey divas Mariah Carey (salary: $18 million) and Nicki Minaj ($8 million) are unlikely to be asked back. Idol speculation has become a rite of spring; one of the better suggestions we’ve heard is to bring the show full circle by hiring fan favorites like first-time winner Kelly Clarkson and Season 5 runner-up Katharine McPhee. Clarkson last spring served as a mentor and judge on ABC’s short-lived Duets, while McPhee stars in NBC’s Broadway drama Smash.

McPhee in March returned to Idol as a guest performer, sharing the stage with the band One Republic.

Fox will unveil its fall prime-time schedule on May 13 at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Shortly thereafter, the network is expected to begin securing orders for some $2 billion in advance commitments for the coming season.

Given its success with younger viewers, tighter inventory and valuable NFL packages, Fox generally is the prime mover of the upfront marketplace. Of course, getting off the blocks first doesn’t necessarily translate to crossing the finish line ahead of the rest of the pack. Last year, the CW wrapped its upfront deals ahead of the Big Four.

Thirty-one weeks into the current campaign, Fox is running second in the race for the demo title, averaging a 2.5 rating among adults 18-49, down 22 percent from the year-ago period. CBS is first (2.9, down 3 percent), and NBC is third (2.4, down 4 percent). ABC is bringing up the rear with a 2.2 in the dollar demo, marking a decline of 8 percent.