12 ‘American Idol’ Secrets: Courting Simon Cowell, House Party Disasters and the Right Name

Former Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow gives TheWrap behind-the-scenes look at show’s inception

Over 15 seasons, Fox’s “American Idol” became a cultural phenomenon, launching the careers of music superstars like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, as well as judge Simon Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest.

But not all of the drama occurred on stage as wannabes competed for the spotlight, said Sandy Grushow, the former Chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group who presided over both the broadcast network and the production studio from 1999 to 2004.

Behind the scenes, Grushow revealed that the network had to tackle issues like time-zone troubles, a reluctant Simon Cowell, a hovering Rupert Murdoch and a disastrous party at the Santa Monica home of NewsCorp president and COO Peter Chernin.

“There were so many talented people involved with this franchise at the very beginning and over the ensuing years,” Grushow told TheWrap in a wide-ranging interview on the eve of the series’ finale in April 2016. “It took 50 villages to build ‘American Idol.'”

Here are some of the never-before-heard details of how “American Idol” went from off-season pitch to ratings sensation.

1. A Self-Sustaining Summer Replacement
In 2002, Grushow and his team were on the hunt for summer programming and met with then-president of Fox Broadcasting Gail Berman and unscripted programming EVP Mike Darnell.

“They came to me to discuss a music competition series that CAA was out pitching as a summer replacement,” Grushow told TheWrap. “The network was coming off of a very difficult year, from ratings and financial standpoints. There were a few success the prior fall, including ’24,’ but we had spent all of our original programming budget.”

The show was pitched as an American version of “Pop Idol,” a new reality competition series from producer Simon Fuller that had successfully launched in October 2001 on the U.K.’s ITV network

“The most interesting aspect of [the pitch] was CAA said the show would be underwritten by three brands — Ford, Coca Cola and AT&T. It was not the first time that’s been done, but it was uncommon.” That aspect of the pitch had special appeal for Grushow seeking a summer series: “We had no money left in our budget to buy original programming.”

2. Rupert Murdoch: “Don’t talk. Buy.”
Given the state of Fox’s budget for original programming, the series was moving forward at the network under the presumption that the three brands were underwriting the production in its entirety. Suddenly this wasn’t the case.

“In the blink of an eye, Gail and Mike came back to me and said, ‘Change of plans.’ Those three brands were not going to underwrite the entire cost of the show. They were simply willing to be sponsors, which was a whole different ball game. I had to go back to Peter and he drew the line, that we were not prepared to go that far over budget. So everything stopped.

At an impasse, it was Grushow who mentioned the project at a staff meeting with Murdoch and got the project back on track — and fully funded.

“We had a meeting set with Rupert Murdoch regarding our summer plans. Gail started to talk about [the plan] and at some point during the course of the meeting. I looked at Rupert and said, “Plus, we’re also talking to CAA about a singing competition series from the U.K. called ‘Pop Idol.’ And I could see Rupert’s wheels start to spin and suddenly he blurted out, “That’s the show that Liz was talking to me about.”

Liz was Liz Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter and a television executive residing in the U.K. when the original series exploded.

“Rupert then proceeded to take his fist, slam it on the conference room table and looked at me and said ‘Don’t talk, buy.’ And that was essentially the end of the meeting.”

3. Importing Simon Cowell
Darnell provided Grushow with clips of the U.K. series, and it became immediately clear one key element of the original would have to journey across the pond.

“I had seen precious little of the U.K. version. Mike Darnell gave me a tape that was of a horrible quality, you could barely make out faces. What I could tell immediately was that Simon Cowell was the linchpin of the show,” Grushow said. “He was extremely compelling to watch and clearly the driving force. I remember saying to Ira [Kurgan, then head of business affairs], ‘We need to make him of the essence,’ meaning he would have to come to America to be a part of the show if we were to order it. It was a bit of bluff, but I wanted to make sure he was going to be a part of it.”

american idol seacrest dunkleman

4. Enter Brian Dunkleman
One of the biggest legends in “American Idol” history is one that never was — Ryan Seacrest‘s Season 1 co-host, Brian Dunkleman. In assembling onscreen talent, Grushow did not recall any casting sessions for Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson or Ryan Seacrest. But he remembered Dunkleman’s audition.

“I do remember one casting session, and that was where we met Brian Dunkleman,” he said. “And Brian, as I recall, was reading some sides that had been written for him. At the end, I remember looking at Gail, and we both kind of shrugged our shoulders and we were like, ‘OK.’ The producers felt strongly about it so we signed off on it.”

Dunkleman, who was booted after his awkward first season, would take punches from late night hosts for years to come. But he’s set to appear on Thursday’s series finale.

5. Cowell Refused to Sign a Multi-Year Deal
“As hard as we tried to make a multi-year deal with Simon Cowell, his people, led by Alan Berger at CAA and Sam Fischer, his lawyer at Ziffren-Brittenham, he absolutely refused to go beyond one year,” Grushow said.

“As it turns out, it was a brilliant maneuver on their part. Heaven knows Ira and I tried absolutely everything. We went to the edge of the cliff, but at a certain point in time we had a TV show to make. I just thought, ‘If the show is successful it’s a high class problem to have.'”

6. Fox’s “Idol” Time Problem
The show’s interactive portion, where viewers voted contestants through to the next round, created logistical issues — the most obvious being a matter of time. “The first issue was the different time zones in the America,” Grushow said. “In the U.K., they could announce the results at the end of the evening but we couldn’t do that. Preston Beckman, one of the all time great TV minds, working with Mike and Gail had hatched this idea for a results show,” Grushow said.

The results show aired the evening after contestants performed, revealing who would live to fight another week. “It was the only workaround and it turned out to be a brilliant one,” he said.

7. The Name Game
There are a few accounts of how “Pop Idol” came to be renamed “American Idol.” Reports over the years have suggested it was an early priority for Fox to differentiate the shows as it rolled out in other countries, while others suggested Americans needed a patriotic title  less than a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But Grushow said he simply wanted to avoid comparison to another music competition series that was already on the air  — and tanking.

“At the time all of this was happening, there was a show on the WB called ‘Popstars’ that was failing miserably,” he said. “As a marketer, I was concerned about title confusion. The title ‘American Idol’ came up and I don’t remember exactly who came up with it, but as soon as I heard it, I loved it.”

Not everyone was sold on the title change initially. “We had a meeting with Rupert about the show, and I told him I was concerned about the title and that I wanted to change it. I remember him giving me this look of disdain and saying, ‘What is it with you Hollywood executives? Why do you always need to fix something that isn’t broken?'” he said. “I’ve read stories about the fact that we did it because it was post-9/11 and it was patriotic, but I didn’t think for a second about that — it was big, it was clean and didn’t have the word ‘pop’ in it.”

Kelly Clarkson Ameircan Idol

8. The High Point: Kelly’s “Moment”
It comes as no surprise that Grushow’s favorite moment from launching the series is one shared by many “Idol” fans — watching a trembling Kelly Clarkson claim the first-ever title and sing the competition’s first original song, “A Moment Like This.”

“The feeling I got when Kelly was singing, with tears flowing and confetti falling, I can honestly say that the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck,” he said. “It’s one of the only times I can remember being not just a television executive, but a fan.”

9. The Low Point: A Disastrous House Party
Everyone involved in production was riding high by the time season one’s Top 12 finalists were named in midsummer 2002, and Grushow persuaded Peter Chernin, then the president and COO of Fox owner NewsCorp., to host a party for producers, judges, hosts, finalists, the CAA agents and the Fox executives.

There was a hitch: The party fell just as the major players were seeking a more lucrative deal with the network reflecting the show’s sudden popularity. “In the Hollywood tradition of renegotiating, Simon Fuller was, through CAA, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on us to renew the deal,” he said. “He felt, and not wrongly, that the deal that was made did not remotely compensate him for the value of what was being created. But we had a contract. Part of this party was to keep the good feelings going through what was a little bit of a bump in the road.

“The event was scheduled for the evening of a show taping, and we sent a series of limousines to shuttle talent from the set to his house,” Grushow said. “So now we’re all there, waiting for all of the talent to show up when I get word that Simon Fuller has instructed all the limousine drivers to turn the cars around. He decided that he didn’t want any of his people attending the party given the fact that he was not happy with the deal. We were used to brass-knuckle tacticsm but Chernin, the No. 2 guy at NewsCorp, was not pleased.”

Upset by the slight, Chernin asked Grushow to approach the CAA agents and ask them all to leave his home — it was they, after all, who were in the process of negotiating a new deal. “I had to go outside and approach Lee Gabler [then a CAA partner and co-chair of the TV department] and tell him that he and the rest of his people needed to leave. Lee was always a good guy, and we were very cordial, but the top of his head came off,” Grushow said.

The men were near a physical confrontation when Chernin intervened and the agents left, Grushow recalled. “The night was a complete disaster.”

10. Learning From “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
Naturally, “American Idol” season two was a high priority for the network, but Murdoch wanted it on the fall 2002 schedule, despite the fact that the first season finale aired September 4, 2002.

“As a practical matter, it was impossible to do,” Grushow said. There was no time to prep a new season, and the network had rights to the World Series that fall. “But even more importantly, we had all seen what had happened with ABC and ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ where they over-relied on the show. I felt very strongly that ‘Idol’ should be a once-a-year-affair. I was pushing back hard against Rupert’s desire to turn it around and run it again,” Grushow said.

Grushow won, and the second season returned in January 2003. But Murdoch was not done tinkering. “He also wanted to move the show when it came back. A little over a decade earlier, I had been at Fox overseeing marketing when Rupert had convinced Barry Diller to move ‘The Simpsons’ to Thursday night up against ‘The Cosby Show,’ the biggest show on TV,” he said. “It’s not enough to be successful, he wanted to crush the competition.”

simon cowell american idol

11. Renewing Cowell
As Grushow predicted, Simon Cowell proved to be a key element of the show’s success, bringing it an unusual edginess. But striking a new deal with the Brit was making Murdoch increasingly anxious. At one point, he walked into Grushow’s office unannounced to discuss how to hold the line on Cowell’s salary demands.

“I finally said to him, ‘You’ve got a $100 million dollar asset on your hands. Does it make that big of a difference if we have to pay Simon Cowell, the linchpin, $5 million a year?'” Grushow said. “He didn’t respond, and that sort of ended the discussion. What’s ironic is that I referred to it as a $100 million asset, and now its a multi-billion dollar asset.”

12. The Legend of William Hung
One of the biggest indicators that “Idol” had longevity was the 2004 discovery of William Hung, an early-round contestant who performed Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” so poorly he became a punchline, hero, and early Internet obsession all at once.

“I had a very clear picture in my head as to what the essence of our marketing message needed to be on air,” Grushow said. “It was basically to show somebody who was horrifically bad, in a hysterical fashion, and juxtapose that with an amazing singer. The on-air promo department came up to my office to show me their first spot for season three, and I was dissatisfied because I didn’t think the bad performance they were showing was sufficiently terrible or funny,” he said.

He and his staff scanned hours of tape until, he said, “finally the clouds parted, and the angels began to sing, or at least someone began to sing ‘She Bangs.'”

Needless to say, the third season was a huge success.

The series finale of “American Idol” airs Thursday on Fox.