Women in Music 2016

'American Idol' Fades Out: Preserving the Show's Legacy Despite a Precipitous Decline

Illustration by Thomas Pitilli
American Idol Fades Out: After 14 seasons, the Fox show stage-manages its exit to end on a high note. 

No hits, depressed ratings, fewer ads and sky-high salaries all led to this week’s bombshell announcement.

Not 24 hours after fox dropped an early morning bomb on May 11 announcing that American Idol, the venerable 14-year-old show that redefined music’s place on TV, would end with its 15th season, the mood backstage at its finale was, surprisingly, ­ebullient. “I’ve been on sets of canceled shows, and they aren’t pretty or fun, but Tuesday felt more like a celebration,” says a behind-the-­curtains observer at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. “Nobody was depressed or morose. It wasn’t a funeral.”

Idol in denial? Perhaps. Not only has rival The Voice caught up in overall TV viewers (13.5 million for the NBC franchise's latest season versus 10.7 million for Idol so far in 2015, according to Nielsen), but TV singing competitions as a whole are down more than 20 percent. Idol’s advertising revenue has nose-dived, from $628 million in 2013 to $427 million in 2014, according to Kantar Media. Once able to command $500,000 per 30-second spot as recently as 2011, the show could only ask for $300,000 in 2014, and even less this year. 

Meanwhile, the production remains costly -- in the range of $2 million per episode -- and the talent salaries exorbitant (Ryan Seacrest’s pay: $15 million, with Jennifer Lopez just above him) as Idol looks to compete with a judges panel of proven stars. Add the loss of major sponsors Coca-Cola, Apple and AT&T (good for annual revenue of $150 million; Ford and Google signed on for this year), and the P&L teeters dangerously close to the red.

On the music side, Idol’s once enviable track record also has hit some speed bumps. The last coronation song to make the top 10? Phillip Phillips’ “Home” in 2012. In addition, fewer finalists are getting signed and for much less money. The days when Sony Music laid out a payment structure that began at a $180,000 advance for a first album with the potential to reach $500,000 to $1 million if subsequent options are exercised are long gone. Now, Universal is the show’s recording partner, first through Interscope and, this year, through Big Machine, whose president/CEO Scott Borchetta also serves as Idol’s on-air mentor. Today, an Idol winner may see half of such monies as part of a 360 deal, much of which is recoupable. (Season 11 winner Phillips is currently suing to get out of a contract his lawyer called “onerous.”) The Idol summer tour too has been halved --  from 10 finalists to five with the occasional special guest and smaller venues.

Why the precipitous decline? Newly installed Fox chiefs Dana Walden and Gary Newman and News Corp. executive vp David Hill, Idol’s main executive producer (news of EP Per Blankens' exit emerged on Thursday), might cite TV industry terms like a show’s “natural maturation” and “audience erosion.” But longtime Idol insiders, while apprehensive to share their thoughts publicly for fear of upsetting the new regime, point to a clear turning of the tide: the 2011 exit of Simon Cowell -- not because he took the acidity with him (which he did), but rather the A&R chops. “Simon Cowell was the most astute, honest examiner of what kind of talent the public was seeing,” says one high-ranking source. “He kept the bar high as to who had star potential. Today, the judges fawn over mediocrity and these are artists you’d never give a record deal to."

In fact, Idol’s success rate is on par with the industry standard -- 1.5 hits out of 10 signings is a generous estimate -- when one considers sales for top 12 non-winners like Chris Daughtry (7.3 million in album sales, according to Nielsen Music) and even Clay Aiken (2003’s “Invisible” was a qualified top 40 smash on his way to selling 5 million total albums) along with those of Kelly Clarkson (13.8 million) or Carrie Underwood (15.2 million). “Without American Idol, we would have lost the recording industry a lot earlier than we did,” says former executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. “The impact on the charts is astonishing.”

The Voice’s chart impression, on the other hand, has been virtually nonexistent as far as contestants go (coaches are another matter, although Adam Levine’s band Maroon 5 and Blake Shelton seem to be the only quantifiable beneficiaries), but some think it’s just a question of time before they find that hit act. Having Idol and even the short-lived X Factor (which also yielded one hit act stateside, girl group Fifth Harmony, but claims bragging rights to UK discovery One Direction) out of the way, can only precipitate that show’s success. “With the visibility The Voice has, and with the right A&R-ing — which is tough, matching the right song to the artist -- it’s still a vehicle to break a young new talent,” says a major label executive. 

It’s one reason why executives at the network, label/­management arm 19 Entertainment and FremantleMedia, the show’s producing partner, are hell-bent on sending their former crown jewel out with a respectful bang, stage-managing its sunset like the happy ending to a teen movie.

It seems the staff, crew, alumni and certainly the stars got the memo. “Fifteen years of anything is a lot,” Idol musical director Rickey Minor told Billboard on finale day. Echoed Fremantle president of entertainment programming for North America Trish Kinane: “It has become an iconic part of American popular culture, and we’re incredibly proud,” adding that the Idol brand remains incredibly strong internationally with 52 versions around the world (she also doesn't rule out a future incarnation in the U.S.). Graduates like Phillips, Elliott Yamin and Constantine Maroulis (seasons 11, 5 and 4, respectively) mentioned television history and 15-year senior supervising producer Patrick Lynn spoke of “going out on a high note.” Even former executive producer Lythgoe, unceremoniously relieved of Idol duties twice in a 12-year span, compared its reign to that of a champion boxer, albeit one in his twilight years: “It’s like when a real heavyweight is getting to the end of their career and having to fight all these young whipper-snappers; You've got to know when to retire.”

But in the wake of Fox’s news, following internal discussions which date back at least two months before the announcement timed to the Fox Upfront, disagreements over its dissemination have emerged -- namely, that cancellation chatter took away from the season 14 finale (no joke: night two only drew 7.7 million viewers). One such critic, Borchetta, was none too thrilled to hear of swan-song plans for the return of ex-judges and a lack of focus on the talent -- the artists he’s tasked with developing. “With no disrespect, if the show’s going to be about nostalgia, then it’s not going to make sense for us at Big Machine to be a part of it,” he told Billboard after Nick Fradiani was named the latest Idol victor. “It’s just reality. This is a business, too; it depends on what Fox’s mission is.”

“To preserve Idol’s legacy” is the goal, says Lynn. And also its dignity, Lythgoe adds: “Television is cyclical. I’m sure that 10, 15 years from now, American Idol will be back -- and we’ll remember it for the huge success that it was rather than the program that was beaten down.” 

Additional reporting by Fred Bronson

A version of this article first appeared in the May 23 issue of Billboard