Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Entertaining Business: American Idol

January 16, 2015

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American Idol is back for its 14th season. Did you even notice?

When Idol debuted on Fox in 2002, everyone watched. Or at least it seemed like they did, with 22 million people tuning in to see Kelly Clarkson crowned as the show’s first winner.

Season 2 had audiences nationally debating loudly about the merits of Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, and the show had more than 30 million regular viewers. Season 4 brought us Carrie Underwood. The massive hit instantly made Simon Cowell a star stateside, revived Paula Abdul’s career and helped launch Ryan Seacrest into our orbit.

Idol was such a phenomenon that for eight seasons it was the most watched primetime show on television. Eight consecutive seasons is really difficult to do.

More importantly, it brought in that much sought-after 18-49-year-old demographic for Fox.

Since then, though, once dominant show has been steadily slipping, and producers are in panic model. For this year’s Season 14, the show will get rid of its results night (which was mostly an hour of padding anyway), airing only once a week after the audition rounds end. This is likely directly related to its ratings decline, and it is a similar tactic to that of Dancing With The Stars, another once-dominant entertainment reality show.

But the biggest hit comes in the form of Coca-Cola opting not to advertise with the show any longer. The soft drink company (whose red cups were a staple of the show) has been with Idol from Season 1, but has been committing less and less of its ad dollars, dropping from nearly $50 million in 2012, to just over $16 million in 2013.

Last year the show lost AT&T’s sponsorship, and it seems like Ford could be next. While Ford is still committed to Idol for the 2015 season, the automaker has been devoting increasingly less ad revenue to the series.

These advertisers aren’t alone. In 2012, the show had $781.9 million in ad dollars, but by the 2014 season that had dropped almost by half to $394.7 million. These exits aren’t a huge surprise since the ratings are dropping.

Last year’s season finale only brought in 10.1 million viewers, which was its lowest rated finale to date. While 10.1 million might seem like a lot (think of what those kind of numbers could do for a CW show), its a far cry from the finale numbers the show used to have back in season 2, when it hit its pinnacle at 38.1 million viewers. Even as recently as 2010, the finale managed to attract 29 million.

Overall, the ratings have been on a steady decline since Season 7 (despite all attempts at switching up judges and making some format changes), going from an average of 30 million viewers an episode down to a meager 10 million.

Competition in the form of The Voice hasn’t helped matters. The NBC singing competition averaged close to 15 million viewers an episode last season, and ranked in the Top 10 for the TV season, while Idol was way down the list at number 28.

It doesn’t seem like the show will ever be able to return to its glory. So, the bigger question is: when will Fox pull the plug?

Story Ideas:

Why American Idol Needs to Say Farewell (For Now) 

An Iconic Show’s Future Looks Grim 

As American Idol’s Ratings Plummet Further, Let’s Stop Trying to Reinvent This Once Hot Show 

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