The crowd isn't cheering for Simon Fuller.
Rather, it's the four talent judges whose appearance just minutes before a recent Wednesday evening "American Idol" telecast causes a loud burst of applause to fill the soundstage at CBS Television City in Hollywood. As they're introduced one by one like rock stars, Kara DioGuardi, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and-finally-Simon Cowell wave to the fans as they make their way to their customary perches at the base of the stage.
Then, without any fanfare, Fuller and his wife, Natalie, quietly take their seats near the rear of the studio audience. He might be the founder/CEO of 19 Entertainment and the chief creative force behind the "Idol" format and its various worldwide incarnations, but Fuller doesn't need the spotlight to enjoy his success.
In fact, it's from the audience that the British talent manager-turned-TV mogul can best evaluate the status of his brainchild. Throughout its eight-season run-including an amazing seven consecutive seasons as the TV ratings champ, with an eighth all but certain-Fuller and his production partners at Fremantle Media and the Fox network have constantly tweaked the show.
This season brought some especially risky new features, including a new judge and a "judge's save" element.
"I'm delighted with the changes," Fuller says. "Bringing in Kara, the fourth judge, has just added another dimension and provided an opportunity for the others to spark off a new personality . . . I think it's made for a much more lively show and a little bit more unpredictable."
Fuller believes it's that buzz generation-including the controversial developments like feuding judges or contestants with dicey pasts or Cowell's suggestion this year that he might leave the show after next season-that keeps the audience interested.
Having an appealing group of talent surrounded by smart production values and evaluated by the toughest judge on TV doesn't hurt either. Plus, in this age of user-generated entertainment, "Idol" is perhaps the most democratic show of all time.
"Over the course of 50 years of talent contests on television, this is the first show that allowed Americans to vote," Fox reality guru Mike Darnell says. "It's just this massive thing that came together in one notion and created what is the most dominant television show. Because of audience dilution caused by DVRs, DVDs, the Internet, cable, all things that exist now, I cannot imagine there will ever be a show that reaches that kind of dominance again."
Fuller waves off any concern that ratings this season are down a bit from last year. All of broadcast is eroding, he says, and "Idol" remains by far the most popular show on TV for the eighth year in a row.
"The distance from No. 2 to No. 1 is bigger now than it's ever been in the whole life of 'Idol,' " he says. "Everyone is hurting a lot more than us."
Fuller is a behind-the-scenes guy but his "Idol" profile has been raised this year following the August departure of Nigel Lythgoe, who was executive producer until last season. Lythgoe's former business partner Ken Warwick remains as an executive producer, and Darnell and Fremantle Media USA CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz are key players on the show. But it's Fuller who now gets top billing-and not just in America.
The "Idol" format has been sold in 42 territories and now reaches more than 100 countries. In most, as in the United States, it's a top 10 ratings juggernaut. The result has been huge profits for Fox Broadcasting, Fuller, 19 Entertainment (a division of the entertainment content company CKX), along with global distributor Fremantle (a division of the Euro broadcaster RTL, which is 90%-owned by Germany's Bertelsmann AG) and other broadcasters worldwide.
"We're one of the few entertainment companies whose profits have grown remarkably year to year," Fuller says. "If you look at 19's numbers, you can see ["American Idol"] makes about 90% of the profits."
According to a CKX filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, 19's 2008 revenue from "Idol," including international format sales, syndication, merchandise and touring, was $96 million, up from $83.8 million in 2007. License fees and sponsorships added $15 million and sales of recorded music $48.5 million. After deducting costs, "Idol" worship worldwide produced a profit of $75 million for 19.
Fremantle, which splits "Idol" profits with 19, made a similar amount. News Corp.'s Fox pays a reported $40 million license fee to air "Idol" each year and a performance premium that this year will reach $30 million. Fox executive VP of sales Jean Rossi won't say how much the network charges for advertising but 30-second spots for the final two shows in May (which last year reportedly cost more than $1.3 million each) were nearly sold out two months in advance of the airdates. Reports peg a 30-second spot during a regular-season broadcast as costing $700,000, the highest of any show on TV. Fox aired 52.5 hours of "Idol" last season and also has lucrative sponsorship deals.
Despite his success and control, Fuller has plans for more. At the top of his list, he wants to lead a buyout to take 19 Entertainment private again. Fuller and CKX chairman Robert F.X. Sillerman attempted to buy out the public company last year but the deal collapsed when the banking crunch hit.
"That simply was not the right time to buy the company back," Fuller says. 'We felt we should wait and let things settle before we made any decisions. Personally, I'd love to take it private. But for the time being we're still a public company."
Whatever happens, "Idol" remains firmly anchored at Fox. The four-year contract signed in 2005 is up after this season, but the show is being automatically renewed for two more years under an option Fox has based on ratings performance.
Meanwhile, Fuller is focused on growing the brand worldwide. An "Idol"-themed attraction opened in February at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and quickly became the most popular at the park.
"It's been a greater response than we ever expected," says Michael Jung, VP of creative entertainment for Walt Disney Imagineering. " 'Idol' is a perfect marriage for Disney because it is an aspirational show."
Other recent licensing deals include Electronic Arts for mobile and iPhone games, Konami for a karaoke videogame, Sulake: Habbo Hotel for virtual "Idol" products and space in cyberspace, and Upper Deck, which is about to launch a line of trading cards.
"The show is such a phenomenon now culturally," Fremantle's Frot-Coutaz says. "Everything we do reinforces the brand."
The crowd isn't cheering for Simon Fuller.