Unplugging ‘American Idol': Inside Fox’s Talks on Production Costs, Ratings Decline, Ambitious Send-Off Plans

TheWrap investigates three-week deliberation among network, producers and talent to bid farewell to the franchise

Last Updated: May 12, 2015 @ 9:34 AM

Fox elicited strong response Monday after dropping the bomb that its flagship reality competition “American Idol” would end its run after 15 seasons.  But the decision was preceded by nearly a month of deep conversations between network executives, producers and talent over how to bid the franchise farewell, an individual close to the talks told TheWrap.

Production costs, declining ratings and the “wandering eye” of advertisers were all discussed, according to the individual, with a graceful retirement becoming the priority for Fox and its producing partners.

A spokesperson for Fox declined comment to TheWrap.

“People think the enduring secret of reality is that it’s cheaper to produce, but not in the case of  ‘Idol,'” the insider said.

Indeed, when the show ends its run it will have paid hundreds of millions in salaries and production costs. Judges Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey were each paid a reported $17.5 and $18 million respectively per season, and host Ryan Seacrest clocks in at roughly $15 million annually. Not to mention Fox footing the bill for as many as three hours of live television per week over a given season, as it wasn’t until current Season 14 that the network cut back on “Idol” programming hours.

“It’s got the costs of a mid-level scripted series and the ratings don’t reflect that investment. Instead of trying to trim the show down, they said, ‘Let’s end this in the right way.'”

Since 2001, FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment have franchised the competition in countries all over the world. Though its North American incarnation was a powerhouse at its 2002 premiere and gained momentum in subsequent seasons, the show has seen major decline in total viewers and cultural influence.

“American Idol” marked a series low this season, dropping to a dismal 1.4 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic for live and same day numbers. The show this season is averaging a 2.7 rating in the key 18-49 demographic and 10.832 million total viewers, according to Nielsen most current numbers, which includes Live Plus 7 Day numbers where available. Gone are the days during its pop culture heyday when the show was a Fox juggernaut drawing up to 30 million viewers.

In its prime, the show enjoyed the trifecta of consumer advertising: telecommunications with AT&T, a soft drink in Coca-Cola and an iconic automobile sponsor in Ford. AT&T left the fold  in January 2014 and Coca-Cola hit the road December that year.

“Even from an advertiser standpoint, the show used to have the triple crown — telecom, soft drink, auto,” said the insider.

While Ford remains, they have significantly dialed back their investment the individual said.  The company’s product placement and other visibility has typically run much earlier in the competition, while in the most recent season the brand didn’t pop up until the Top 10 contestants were left standing — a point in the series with higher stakes and increased viewers.

“Even with nine, ten million viewers, perhaps it doesn’t make financial sense to keep going,” said Shirley Halperin, author of the hardcover collectors publication “American Idol: Celebrating 10 Years” and news director at Billboard magazine.

“The party line at Fox has always been, ‘These are great numbers, any show would kill for these.’ But not if you’re paying all that money,” she added.

“Idol’s” inevitable end was announced with plenty of fanfare at Fox’s upfront presentation in New York on Monday. Though a comment made by network co-chairman and CEO Dana Walden stirred up fans — that she’d welcome back any and all of original show judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson — the road to the revelation was all about current judges Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr.

“They reached out to the judges and Ryan [Seacrest] to see if they were up for one more before moving forward,” said the insider, adding that anything less than full participation could have resulted in the show’s abrupt cancellation.

That goodwill tour also extended to previous show winners like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, as well as megastar mentors who have appeared.

“I think they touched on something nostalgic in people,” the insider said, “and generated a ton of interest in the last act.”

Halperin agreed, saying she anticipates a “rolling out the red carpet for the alumni, judges, the wacko contestants. It’s an undeniable part of the competition for the past 15 years. Zeitgeisty moments that we all lived through and remember fondly.”

Cowell just may create more of those “moments” as TheWrap reported Monday that Fox is eyeing a reteam with the mega producer and former judge on a new project for the 2017 TV season, one year after the network rests the talent competition following “Idol’s” swan song.

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