'Idol' Delivers Ratings Power for Fox

Fox's vocal competition show American Idol has returned to Tuesday and Wednesday nights with big numbers while other networks tremble before the show's power to attract viewers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay, let's for get a moment about the competition at the Olympics and talk about a competition between the Olympics telecast and a formidable competitor. American Idol is the biggest show on the air. Last week it trounced the Grammy Awards ceremony in the ratings. And the show's success is especially impressive at a time when the television audience is eroding. NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS, reporting:

Usually, in life you have a few options lead, follow or get out of the way. But when it comes to American Idol, Fox's breakout hit singing competition, there isn't much choice.

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Garth Ancier the head of the WB, scans the ratings and shakes his head.

Mr. GARTH ANCIER (Chairman of WB): I mean, look, it's a juggernaut show. I mean, look at the Archie demos, [unintelligible], these are big, big numbers. I meant these are dominant numbers. You don't see anything on any network that's even getting close.

MASTERS: Ancier says his network has managed to hold on to a relatively small but loyal following of young women who tune into the Gilmore Girls on Tuesday nights. But among 18 to 49 year olds, American Idol attracts 37 percent of the television watching audience. That's more than twice the share of the other broadcast networks combined.

In the show's fifth season, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson are back in the judges' chairs, listening as contestants vie for their ticket to Hollywood.

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MASTERS: Last year, as the show entered its fourth season, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says Fox expected it to show signs of weakening. But American Idol performed so strongly that it has altered the scheduling landscape for Fox's competitors. NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly says one of the worst things about it from a rival's point of view is that it plays on more than one night. Not even its length is predictable.

Mr. KEVIN REILLY (Entertainment President, NBC): There has always been giant hits on television; highly unusual for a plan to multiple nights and to be expandable. They have 90-minute into two-hour episodes of Bonanza expanding on a moment's notice.

MASTERS: This year, NBC was airing two of its strongest shows, My Name is Earl and The Office on Tuesday nights. Moving the shows was undesirable because it could confuse the audience. But NBC couldn't leave them where they were once Idol started its season in January. The network made tentative plans to put the shows on Thursdays.

But Reilly wondered what to do if Fox then altered American Idol's schedule.

Mr. REILLY: Had they in fact put it right on Thursday, that would have been a very tough decision, and we were waiting.

MASTERS: Idol stayed put, though Fox does plan to unsettle the competition by scheduling a few installments on Thursdays. And that's bad news, because in its fifth season, American Idol took off like a rocket. By week two, the show was up 25% over last year both in overall viewers and in the key 18 to 49 year old demographic.

Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says the show works in part because it's one of the few that families can watch together. It also allows the audience to participate. The public's vote determines who stays and who must go. Lythgoe says all this has helped make American Idol, like its British predecessor Pop Idol, the ultimate water cooler program.

Mr. NIGEL LYTHGOE (Executive Producer, American Idol): We used to call it society glue back in the UK, and it just bonded people. And television stopped doing that a number of years ago.

MASTERS: Fox has avoided the mistake that ABC made a few years ago with Who Wants to be a Millionaire. That show aired four nights a week and burned out a the speed of light. Lythgoe says Fox does ask for extra hours during the show run, but never pushed for year round American Idol.

Mr. LYTHGOE: You cannot have two American Idols a year. It's bad enough that we're churning them out every year.

MASTERS: The chemistry on the show is also key. This season, Simon Cowell is as blunt as ever when he evaluates contestants.

(Soundbite of Contestant Singing)

Mr. SIMON COWELL (American Idol Judge): All right. I can't take anymore of that. With respect, there's nothing we can do or say to make you good when the audition was that bad.

Unidentified Man: Was it really that bad?

Mr. COWELL: Oh, horrific.

MASTERS: Certainly, Cowell must be the most imitated judge in the history of talent contests. Lythgoe says American audiences used to boo him. But now they find that Cowell slakes their thirst for honesty. The producers don't ask him to be nasty, Lythgoe adds, but he does have standards to maintain.

Mr. LYTHGOE: I think he felt last year that he softened. I must say, I thought he had too. He's becoming American, and he's enjoying being loved. And it is very tough when you enjoy being loved that people turn around to you and say, oh, you were a bit tough; you were a bit harsh. And I think maybe this season he's remembered what he was here for.

MASTERS: Lythgoe has offered some advice to the other judges, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul.

Mr. LYTHGOE: I've been saying to Randy, for God's sake, get a dictionary and learn a few more words. Paula, control your emotions a little bit and say more than just, Simon, shut up. And she has, I must say this year, I think, been very good with the critiques, and Randy has said a few more words. So, they could only do what was asked of them in that sense.

MASTERS: The judges have drawn their share of controversy. This month, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation or GLAAD, called the show homophobic after Simon Cowell advised one male contestant to put on a dress, and Randy Jackson asked another if he was a girl. And it's not just the judges who are accused of unfairness.

Two seasons ago, Elton John, who had put in an appearance on the show, called the audience racist during a period in which a group of talented black singers faired poorly in the voting. Lythgoe thinks such [unintelligible] are a byproduct of the show's premise.

Mr. LYTHGOE: Our judges, particularly Simon, are not worried what color you are, what religion you follow, what sexuality you are; you're going to be hit. If you don't have the talent, you are going to be hit.

MASTERS: Clearly, none of the controversy has slowed American Idol's momentum. At this point, NBC's Kevin Reilly says, other networks may simply have to wait for the show to cool off a little.

Mr. REILLY: While it's burning this hot, we kind of rope-a-dope a bit and just try to get through it.

MASTERS: Meanwhile, Reilly is looking to nurture new hits during that September to December period when American Idol is mercifully off the air. His dream, like every other executive at every network but Fox, is to find a show that cannot only holds its own against American Idol, but finally knock it down a peg or two.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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