With Ratings Down and AT&T Out, 'American Idol' Faces Costly 13th Season

American Idol judges

A Feb. 20 event to toast the 13th season of "American Idol" should have been a celebratory affair, but minutes after the show’s Top 13 and star judges arrived at West Hollywood hotspot Fig & Olive, Fox senior executive VP David Hill, a burly Australian and Rupert Murdoch loyalist best-known for a two-decade-plus tenure at Fox Sports, was making a beeline for the bar and ordering a Belvedere -- straight.

If Hill felt the need to calm his nerves, perhaps it had to do with the financials of the show’s latest season. Judge, resident pop diva and bonafide superstar Jennifer Lopez -- who sat in a banquette just feet away from the bar -- will command $15 million for this run of "Idol." Ditto for host Ryan Seacrest, who spent all of 10 minutes working the room at Fig & Olive before finding an exit.


Adding to the costly line items on the show’s already heavy balance sheet is a monstrous new set, which executive producer Evan Prager says aims to provide “energy and intimacy,” but is reported to have cost the production (shared by FremantleMedia, CORE Media Group, its subsidiary 19 Entertainment and Fox) north of $5 million. There are also multiple producers on the payroll including Den of Thieves (comprising MTV vets Jesse Ignjatovic and Prager) and former Swedish Idol executive producer Per Blankens as well as former EPs Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick (still reportedly collecting paychecks despite being fired in 2013). What there isn’t is a lucrative sponsorship by AT&T, which bailed on the franchise after 12 seasons. (Facebook and Google have come in to facilitate dynamic voting, but at a fraction of AT&T’s buy-in.) To make matters worse, "Idol" also missed its advertising rate base. A 30-second spot now runs $310,000, down 10% from 2013. Ratings have been off by as much as 26%. All of these factors have contributed to the first instance where "Idol" could possibly end up in the red -- or breaking even at best.

A Fox representative says, “Thirteen seasons in, 'Idol' is still a top 10 show on television, which is an amazing feat in and of itself. We -- along with millions of fans -- love how the show has come together creatively this season, and it continues to be an extremely valuable asset for the foreseeable future.”


Without syndication revenue to prop up the franchise (as they do for scripted shows like Law & Order and How I Met Your Mother) and with only a licensing deal with Fox (the network doesn’t necessarily participate in lucrative foreign editions), the TV picture isn’t pretty. And on the music side, it doesn’t help the "Idol" brand that its most recent winner, season 12’s Candice Glover, has sold only 19,000 copies of her debut album, "Music Speaks," since its Feb. 18 release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Indeed, when Universal Music Group lobbied for the "Idol" partnership in 2010, the label had already diminished expectations by lowering signing advances (Sony’s payouts of $400,000-plus for the winner were replaced by more modest deals in the ballpark of $150,000) and limiting the number of Idols they pick up to two or three per season.

Millions could be saved with the potential exits of Lopez and Seacrest in 2015 -- the former has signed a straight-to-series deal with NBC for the cop drama "Shades of Blue" (produced by Ryan Seacrest Productions). Seacrest’s two-year Idol extension, drafted in 2012, expires at the end of the current season. Another major set makeover is probably several years away (defends one Idol source: the production “made do with basically the same stage for over a decade!”), and, to be fair, most shows become unprofitable after their seventh of eighth season.  

Still, "Idol" does have plenty going for it. It remains a top ten draw in primetime where its largest viewing block is teens, and a powerful lead-in for Fox’s affiliates. Its success record in launching music careers dwarfs the competition, despite the more-than-occasional flop, and the series was just awarded best music supervision, reality television by the Guild of Music Supervisors. "Idol" entering its twilight years may be what you call a first-world problem -- and nothing a stiff drink can’t remedy, at least for now.