How Low Will ‘American Idol’ Go? Ratings Dive at Fox Has Yet to Kill Show

Once a pop culture phenomenon, the series is a shell of its former self but the show still hasn’t uttered the “c word”

“American Idol” marked a series low last Wednesday night, dropping to a dismal 1.4 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic — and stayed in the ratings dungeon this week.

The long-running singing competition has continued to limp since “Empire” left the Wednesday night schedule, hitting series lows along the way. That begs the question: How low can “Idol” go before being cancelled?

“Idol” Season 14 is running ahead of final season ratings of Fox’s defunct “X Factor,” which is a reasonable comparison based on show format, but still takes into account rapidly changing viewing habits that contribute to broadcast networks dip in Nielsen same-day ratings.

Heading into this week the two regular editions of “Idol” were averaging a combined 2.9 rating in the key 18-49 demographic and 11.3 million total viewers, according to Nielsen’s most current ratings, which include Live Plus 7 Day numbers where available.

The final season of “The X Factor” in 2013-14 on its two regular nights combined to average a 2.2 in the demo and had 7.0 million viewers overall, which is fully L7. That means “Idol” is still 32 percent ahead of “X Factor” in the main demo. In total viewers, the percentage disparity is nearly twice that.

For an even more dramatic Fox comparison, this season’s colossal failure “Utopia” averaged just a 1.7 18-49 demo rating and 3.9 million total viewers. The Friday broadcast of the show had a predictably smaller 1.0 rating and 2.5 million viewers. That means “Idol” is doing worse than the cancelled “Utopia” in the most important demo.

If “Idol’s” 2.9 weighted L7 average seems surprisingly high to readers, remember that “Idol” was up around a 3.0 in Live Plus SD numbers for several weeks at the start of its run. Those marks seem like a distant memory now, especially without drawing in those early for “Empire.”

It’s easy to glance at the once-mighty “American Idol” and declare it dead, but setting aside the show’s illustrious hit history, the numbers aren’t completely unexpected for such a veteran series.

“Idol’s” ratings are still well above the fourth-place network’s season-to-date primetime average of a 2.0 demo rating with 6 million total viewers. Actually, if Fox was able to repeat “Idol’s” numbers across all timeslots in the day part, it would nearly be the No. 1 network (CBS would still edge it by about 100,000 total viewers). Of course that’s not how TV (or life) works and one can’t consider cultural phenomenons in a bubble — the details of the drop-off matter.

Despite its dwindling ratings, “American Idol” still commands one of the higher ad rates on television, which has been one of the show’s saving graces. While “X Factor” finished at No. 62 in that capacity, “Idol” still squeaks into the Top 25 on broadcast.

The show makes money but it costs money too, and Fox has been forced to cut those expenses as ratings have declined. And though they’ve been replaced, it doesn’t help when a huge sponsor like Coca-Cola ditches a program. “Idol” used to represent 55-plus hours on Fox’s schedule. Today, that number is significantly lower, and the show is currently running one night a week as opposed to sticking with two. Season-to-date, “Idol” has aired 31 hours thus far. This time last season, that number was at 40.5 hours.

This season, “Idol” has cut its Top 10 summer touring artists to a Top 5. Insiders told TheWrap the move was a cost-cutting measure due to low interest and ticket sales.

But Jason Morey of 19 Entertainment told TheWrap it was simply a creative maneuver: “While we are always conscious of costs, the reason for the change from 10 to 5 was to allow our top 5 more time to present their music and stories. With 10 contestants, performance time was always an issue.  We also want our top 5 to have the latitude to talk more about their experiences on the show and showcase their artistry.”

As “Idol” continues to age, the costs need be reduced further. Right now it’s up to Fox to decide for how long the benefits will continue to outweigh those expenses.

All that said, “Idol” seems safe from cancellation at the moment. While negotiations for its future are ongoing, a Season 15 renewal feels more like a formality, an insider with knowledge of the situation told TheWrap.