Los Angeles In 2001, Simon Cowell figured a singing contest snapped up by British TV would be an easy sell in America. Instead, network responses ranged from lukewarm to hostile.
“I was thrown out in one pitch meeting. After 30 seconds, the guy told me to get out,” recalled Cowell, making the rounds with entertainment mogul Simon Fuller. “The main thing we were being told was music doesn’t work on TV in prime time. We tried to explain that there’s a lot more than music on the show.”
So much for Hollywood acumen: The international “Idol” empire founded by Fuller has made a hit TV show seem an obvious, even puny ambition as Idolmania has swept across the pop culture realm.
The talent contest has “created this whole zeitgeist, and it’s really about Americans and participating in creating a celebrity of their own,” said media analyst Shari Ann Brill of Carat USA.
New lives for singers
Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson are among the singers rewarded with instant careers in music, movies and in theater. A chorus of enterprises has gotten a dusting of “Idol” magic as well, from Dreyer’s ice cream (Cookies N Dreamz among the novelty flavors) to a Disney World attraction to the “Karaoke Revolution Presents American Idol” video game. A deal with iTunes for exclusive show video and song downloads last season coincided with Apple’s emergence as the nation’s leading music retailer.
There’s even altruistic value in the franchise: The charity initiative Idol Gives Back raised $64 million in 2008 for groups including Children’s Health Fund and Malaria No More.
Fuller, who started it all with Britain’s “Pop Idol” and carried the concept to the United States and more than 35 TV markets worldwide, told The Times of London that “pure, simple television is not that interesting for me; what’s far more interesting is trying to create a cult effect.”
It’s been a lucrative exercise for Fuller and others. His 19 Entertainment, a division of CKX Inc., last week reported an operating profit of $92.5 million, a 37 percent increase over 2008’s $67.4 million. Fuller’s net worth in 2008 reportedly approached $1 billion.
FremantleMedia, which teams with 19 Entertainment in producing the U.S. version, exporting the format and licensing, is another winner. FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz is an executive producer of “American Idol.”
Fox reaps rewards
For Fox, which gave “American Idol” a modest summertime 2002 tryout at the urging of Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the network, the show is a money machine. A 30-second commercial on “Idol” costs around $500,000 and rises to more than $600,000 for the finale, said Ray Dundas, an analyst for ad-buying firm Initiative. By comparison, he said, other top 10 shows, such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” get closer to $240,000 per half-minute ad.
The difference reflects both the size of the “Idol” audience and the fact that it can deliver the elusive young adult viewers preferred by advertisers, Dundas said.
As a trendsetter, “Idol” has served as blueprint for a generation of shows in which contestants — whether singing, dancing, skating, playing the fiddle or swallowing fire — are vetted by a triad that includes one wasp-tongued TV judge, preferably with a foreign accent.
“‘American Idol’ for the record industry is one of the few bright spots over the last seven, eight years. No one else has figured out the magic formula for selling records, and ‘American Idol’ has one,” said Steve Knopper, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age.”
“It’s old-fashioned when you think of it: TV helps you sell records,” Knopper said, a lesson as old as the 1960s U.S. introduction of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”