Ryan Seacrest kicked off a Dec. 8 taping of American Idol at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre with a joke. “I’ll be performing a ballad by Adele,” cracked the host and 15-year veteran of the Fox show as 50 hopefuls, their friends and family, and a trifecta of star judges settled in their seats. “I’m also available to DJ weddings, bar mitzvahs, parties…”
Indeed, the busiest man in show business will be a little less busy come April 2016 when Idol sings its last note, anointing a winner four weeks earlier than in previous years, sources reveal to Billboard.
FremantleMedia North America president of entertainment programming Trish Kinane, who shares showrunning duties with Fox executive vp David Hill, won’t confirm season 15’s truncated schedule, but she does acknowledge, “The storytelling works better in [fewer] weeks.” The problem, surmises Kinane, is that during its heyday, “Idol was so successful [that the season] got too extended too much. There are only so many hours that viewers will devote to watching these shows, so if it is shorter this year, it will be a good thing.”
And by that she means good for everyone. According to an insider, the decision to condense the competition was “the network’s,” which by this point wants to cut its losses with the show that once had a season-five high of 35 million viewers, but was able to draw only 11 million during its most recent round in 2015 (the winner was Nick Fradiani, if you don’t recall). Ad revenue, meanwhile, has fallen from $628 million in 2013 to $427 million a year later when a 30-second spot went for less than $300,000 (down from 2011’s rate of $500,000), according to Kantar Media.
Similarly, stakeholders like 19 Entertainment, the management arm of Idol (which season-11 winner Phillip Phillips is suing for what his lawyer says is an ”oppressive” contract), and business partners past and present (Sony labels RCA and Sony Nashville, Universal’s Interscope Records and Mercury Nashville, among others) don’t seem to be lamenting the closing of this chapter, which has awarded a couple of dozen major-label deals in addition to many more starts and stops. Although recording advances for Idol finalists long ago stabilized (the $400,000 paydays of the Taylor Hicks era now come in closer to $150,000), the investment in taking an act beyond its momentary TV fan base is still steep — and rarely pays off.?
So what can the music business take away from the 15-year run of American Idol? Did the show rewrite the A&R rule book, for better (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert) or worse (the nonstarter victors of seasons 12, 13 and maybe 14)? Jeff Rabhan, chairman of New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and a former manager of Idols Clarkson, Clay Aiken and Elliott Yamin, says the show mirrored what already was happening in the music industry. “Scouting gave way to research-based A&R,” he says. “Plays, chatter and views dictate who’s the next ‘discovery.’ “
Still, the results were mixed even on the higher-rated seasons, averaging at best one successful graduate from each successive Idol class — a better track record than The Voice, but the NBC competitor would argue it similarly boosted its coaches’ profiles. (Meanwhile, Idol judge Jennifer Lopez is set to simultaneously launch a Las Vegas show in January 2016, while Harry Connick Jr. will host his own syndicated daytime talker in September.)
Kinane points to another statistic: half of Idol’s top 10 finalists came through the show’s massive open call auditions process, as opposed to YouTube submissions or casting, as The Voice does. “It’s something we did right.”
Big Machine Records’ Scott Borchetta, who has served as in-house mentor on Idol since season 14, describes the show’s impact as “a big door that is unfortunately slamming shut,” but points to opportunities in other areas of the music business, like songwriting and featured slots. Indeed, Idols have been known to appear in the most unexpected places — recently, season-six top 12 finalist Brandon Rogers scored a credit on Troye Sivan‘s Capitol Records debut, while season-six winner Jordin Sparks guests on Thomas Rhett‘s new album, Tangled Up.
But almost as common are the ones that got away. For instance: Season eight’s Todrick Hall never advanced beyond the top 24 but has since landed management by Scooter Braun and his own MTV series and the starring role on Virgin America’s flight safety music video, seen monthly by over 650,000 air travelers. Also in the Braun universe is season-nine reject Tori Kelly, who, --according to multiple insiders, then-judge Simon Cowell tried to sign to his own Syco Entertainment just as he was about to bolt the show for a competing series, The X Factor, on the same network. “If ever there was a sure winner, it was Tori Kelly,” says one show veteran.
Celebrating scandals alongside accolades is de rigueur in the United Kingdom, where the Idol concept originated, but will producers go there for its last victory lap? Nigel Lythgoe, who has been brought in to helm American Idol‘s two-night finale, will only say that “it won’t all be a nostalgia fest … We’ve still got to crown the 15th winner.”
And don’t rule out an afterlife on a digital network like Hulu or Netflix. Says Kinane: “We haven’t seen the end of this brand.” Judge Keith Urban, for one, is all for it. “I’d love to see if the show can be restructured and continue forward with relevancy and potency in a rapidly changing industry,” he says. “Everybody knows American Idol.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Cornell
A version of this article first appeared in the Year In Music issue of Billboard.