It just stands to reason that spending four hours in prime time on national network TV every week might help blow up your social media presence. But this year’s American Idol top 6 have seen an explosive growth in followers that’s on another level, and it’s all part of the ABC reboot’s plan to keep opening up new windows into the personal stories of the contestants vying for the ultimate season 17 prize on May 19.
“Times have definitely changed since Idol started in 2002, when there wasn’t even YouTube or all the social channels we have now,” says showrunner and executive producer Trish Kinane, who has been with Idol for six years, helping to bridge the gap between the 15-year initial run on Fox to the past two on ABC. “It’s very much been a decision in the last few years to encourage [the] digital [team] and have them embedded into the program team and help them tell the story of the contestants from the auditions to the finale.”
Those efforts to push the contestant’s stories online through more YouTube videos, Instagram stories and tweets are aimed at giving the audience additional chances to engage with the contestants, who were often sealed in a tightly controlled bubble during the live show run for many of the Fox years. Kinane tells Billboard that every story meeting her team has had since last summer has included the digital team, who know everything the production is planning and who encourage the contestants to maintain a strong digital footprint. “That’s the way life is and it would be weird not to,” she says, alluding to the fact that Idol has graduated over the years from a watercooler show to a “digital watercooler” series.
According to a spokesperson for show producer Fremantle, Idol has been the No. 1 social primetime program across broadcast TV every week this season, with last month’s Disney-themed night racking up two million social interactions, according to Nielsen Media calculations. Not only was that a new all-time high for Idol, it also marked a 54% increase over last year’s Disney Night.
JR Griffin, Fremantle’s VP of digital marketing and business development, says that the explosive growth in the contestant’s social media presence has been a big factor in Idol picking up nearly one million followers across social media platforms this season. As an example, he provided the Instagram numbers for the top six:
By comparison, around this time last year, Griffin says that the top 7 contestants — who’s pre-Idol Instagram followers ranged from 621 to 44,400 — had followings ranging from 64,559 to 199,728, with only four crossing the 100,000+ barrier and none above 200,000.
With more than 18 million social followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, Griffin says Idol‘s feeds have gone up by more than 940,000 so far this season, with more than 700 million video views across their social channels in 2019. “With the exception of the Meet Your Contestants (4/22) special, every episode of American Idol this season has been the No. 1 Social Primetime Program Across Broadcast, per Nielsen Social,” he says. He adds that except for that April 22 special, every episode of Idol this season has also ranked in the Weekly Top Ten Series and Specials list for Nielsen Social, peaking at more than two million interactions for the April 22 episode.
Idol‘s senior manager of digital marketing strategy and social media, Lauren Goodman, also notes that according to Nielsen Social data, Idol was 52x more social than the benchmark for all broadcast and cable series year-to-date.
“Social engagement continues to grow becuase we have unique talent and a show that constantly reaches outside that Idol bubble to find more fans, but the judges have also been amazing on social by reaching out to their fanbase in organic ways,” Griffin says.
That manifests with the judges often posting dozens of times on show night, led by pop superstar Katy Perry, who might have the largest social footprint of any reality show judge in history, with 80.1 million Instagram and 107 million Twitter followers. (Add in Luke Bryan‘s 9.68 million Twitter and 4.9 million Instagram followers and Lionel Richie‘s 816,000 on Instagram and you have a massive audience for the judge’s show night posts.)
— KATY PERRY (@katyperry) April 29, 2019
“The judges tag contestants in their social posts… and they are insanely active and always saying, ‘Tell us what we can do,’ and we want us to push them and they all deliver,” he says, with Kinane adding that the Idol team doesn’t have to persuade the judges, especially Perry, to do be super-enthusiastic about posting. In addition to the judge hype and voting reminder posts — and the contestants’ behind-the-scenes and web-exclusive performances — Griffin says that there is also a 20-minute preshow livestream hosted by Radio Disney’s Morgan Tompkins — all of which adds up to what he says is essentially “24-7 storytelling.”
The Idol team is obviously very bullish on the social engagement, even if, as of last month, the show was averaging around 7.55 million viewers on Sunday through its first four live episodes — down 9 percent from last year — and 6.79 million on Mondays (through the first two live episodes and a Wednesday airing), down 14 percent from last year. Those numbers are down from the final season on Fox in 2017, which averaged 9.9 million on Wednesdays and 9.26 million on Thursday nights through the first four weeks.
But, as deep as the Idol team dives into the constestant’s background during production, Kinane says she’s often surprised at the online fandom’s obsession. “They find out stuff we didn’t even know, they’re digging deep and doing research and there have been a couple instances when I read stuff in chat rooms and I said, ‘I had no idea contestant X felt that way about their family,'” she says.
From the Fox days of host Ryan Seacrest basically teaching American how to text in order to vote to the ABC team’s deep digital dive, she says Idol has always been about embracing whatever technology is available to push the envelope. “There was a time when we had to make a decision about embracing digital and we very much jumped into it,” Kinane says.
That extends to this season with the addition of simulcast voting, which found ABC convincing affiliates to do a live coast-to-coast simulcast on Sunday nights for the first time (outside of sports or awards shows), so that all viewers could vote at the same time. “Idol was the first to do that, and it’s an important part of keeping the show fresh and contemporary,” she says, noting that in the past there was a performance show, an overnight vote and then a results show with “lots of padding.”
This year’s three-hour finale will also be simulcast coast-to-coast, with viewers starting their votes when the show starts and the result emerging at the end, keeping everyone in suspense. “Even we won’t know until the end of the show,” she says. “Once again, it’s Idol embracing digital and social innovation to do something different.”