Some networks wait a lifetime for a moment like this.
ABC has tried for nearly 20 years to launch a hit music competition series. Now, it has finally acquired one: “American Idol,” which ended its run last year on Fox, will relaunch next spring on the network. Details are slim, including new judges and who will host. (“Idol” veteran Ryan Seacrest, now firmly a part of the ABC family as co-host of “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” was not mentioned in the press release.) But the network and producers FremantleMedia North America and Core Media Group made the announcement Tuesday morning.
ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey called “American Idol” a “pop-culture staple that left the air too soon,” while Ben Sherwood, co-chairman, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC, said the show “is an entertainment icon, and now it will air where it belongs, in ABC’s lineup of addictive fan favorites alongside ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘The Bachelor.’” He promised a “bigger, bolder and better-than-ever ‘Idol’.”
Added Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO, FremantleMedia Group, said, ”ABC’s passion and enthusiasm make them a perfect home for ‘American Idol.’ We are excited to be partnering with them to discover the next generation of talented artists. It’s an irresistible combination that means now is the ideal time to welcome back one of the most successful shows in the history of contemporary television.”
According to one insider, FremantleMedia North America and Core Media Group, which produce the show, may have been asking between $50 million and $65 million in license fees to bring the show back. NBC expressed interest earlier this year, with an eye toward adding “Idol” to its performance series rotation of “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent.”
That’s when Fox reluctantly stepped in, mulling a bid in order to keep the show from a rival network and make sure it remained a Fox property. But NBC is said to have started worrying about “Idol” impacting its crown jewel, “The Voice.” And Fox execs had been adamant in not bringing “American Idol” back so soon.
“‘Idol’ hasn’t been off the air that long,” Fox TV Group chairman Gary Newman said in January. “I think that bringing shows back is difficult, particularly when you made a big deal about announcing it as the final season.”
But ultimately, it was ABC that surprisingly swooped in for the win. The Alphabet network’s TV graveyard is filled with singing competitions that didn’t make the grade – most notably, “Making the Band,” which created the ill-fated group O-Town before moving over to MTV and getting a revamp under P. Diddy. Other attempts include “The One: Making a Music Star” (2006), “The Next Best Thing” (2007), “High School Musical: Get in the Picture” (2008), “Duets” (2012), and “Rising Star” (2014). Next up, ABC has “Boy Band” this summer.
Fox and the show’s producers touted the spring 2016 edition as “American Idol’s” “Farewell Season.” No one, of course, expected “Idol” to sit on a shelf for long – and many suggested, after a resting period, that the show would come back on a new platform. At a TV Critics press tour last year, host Ryan Seacrest also hinted at a return: “When you’ve got a franchise that has this kind of heritage and you’ve got a franchise that generates X amount of millions of people if it sustains, does that mean it’s the end? I’m not so sure.”
Some execs assumed that when “Idol” was eventually to return, it would be in a completely different form – perhaps as a digital show, or on a streaming service. At meetings held last year among the interested “Idol” parties, discussions revolved around finding a time frame to mount a marketing initiative that would keep “Idol” alive, via social media or spots on a platform like Hulu.
But FremantleMedia began toying with the idea of a reboot almost immediately after the show went off the air in 2016, and was looking to bring back the show with few changes.
“They came to us and said should we resurrect the show and bring it back to television as is,” Newman said. “We felt bringing it back quickly particularly in the same form didn’t make sense.”
Former Fox alternative president Mike Darnell, now President of Unscripted & Alternative Television at Warner Bros. (where he oversees “The Voice”), also has reservations about the return of “Idol.”
“This was the biggest show in the world for about ten years,” he said. “It was No. 1 by a mile. But like the Titanic, once it started to sink, it was impossible to keep bailing enough water out. Sometimes things are so big that when they go down they start sinking.
“When I left, I felt this is just going to keep going down theres no way to save it. The attitude at Fox was, how can we ‘fix’ it? And I said, there’s no way to fix it. It’s old. Once shows start to age it’s really hard to resurrect them. And unfortunately that show was so big that there was no audience that hadn’t seen it. While my heart is with that show, I love that show, it’s my personal opinion that it’s too soon to bring it back. It needs to rest.”
For FremantleMedia and Core, it’s no surprise why the studio wants “American Idol” back on the air, now. The companies are leaving money on the table by not finding a way to bring it back.
“All of the intense speculation surrounding the comeback of ‘American Idol’ demonstrates just how popular and powerful this brand remains,” said Peter Hurwitz, CEO of CORE Media Group. “ABC shares our belief in the enduring value of ‘Idol’ and will provide us with the perfect new home to showcase the gold standard of singing competition shows.”
The longer “Idol” sat on the shelf, the likelihood that the show would continue to lose its value and any remaining awareness and cache with audiences. “Idol” was a shell of its former self by the time it left the air, but still had the kind of ratings most shows would kill for.
“I think people look at the ratings and go, ‘well, those are not bad compared to what we’re getting now,'” Darnell said. “But I think the brand needs a rest. I don’t know what that means and how many years, but that feels too soon, to me.”