LOS ANGELES — Long the nation’s most popular television series, “American Idol” has suddenly started to hit some flat notes — and it’s threatening the money-making machine that has vaulted the Fox network to the top of the broadcast race.
Although still a big hit that other networks would love to have, “Idol’s” ratings this month slid to the lowest level since its debut in summer 2002. And last week for the first time, “Idol” was beaten by a head-to-head competitor, CBS’ surging sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” in the major ratings categories.
The downward trend for the reality show commonly referred to among television executives as the Death Star for its record of annihilating opponents can be traced to a host of reasons, say analysts. A crowded marketplace of reality singing shows, waning viewer curiosity over two new judges and advancing age — the show is in its 11th season — have all conspired to weaken the once seemingly invulnerable program.
The ratings slump may well force Fox to compensate advertisers who were guaranteed higher numbers for what has long been TV’s No. 1 show, media buyers say.
Further evidence that the glut of singing shows is taking its toll surfaced with a massive retooling of Fox’s other entry in the song sweepstakes, “The X Factor,” which failed to deliver the knockout ratings predicted by its star and producer, Simon Cowell, last fall. On Monday, Cowell sacked three of his on-air colleagues, including former “Idol” judge Paula Abdul.
Meanwhile, if you’re keeping score, NBC returns with the second season of “The Voice” on Sunday, giving it a special boost by slotting it directly after its Super Bowl telecast.
Analysts say a confluence of events has caught up with “Idol.”
“There is no curiosity factor like last year, with the new judges,” said Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media in New York. “‘The X Factor’ could have contributed to some viewer fatigue.”
That doesn’t mean “Idol” has lost all its power: Last Wednesday’s episode was still the No. 1 program for the week, averaging 19.7 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. Fox executives point to early signs that viewers are watching the program on DVRs more than in the past, which will boost ultimate ratings. Another network “would gladly take the show off Fox’s hands,” Adgate noted wryly.
A Fox spokeswoman said executives would not comment for the record. Cowell and his spokesman did not return repeated messages and a representative of “Idol’s” creator and executive producer, Simon Fuller, said he was unavailable.
In January, Fox executives had predicted a ratings drop, but the falloff has been far steeper than they anticipated.
That could potentially put Fox in the position of offering free advertising time as compensation for commercial time bought before the season started. The major advertisers on “Idol” are Coca-Cola, Ford and AT&T, companies that have far-reaching deals involving products featured on the show as well as traditional commercials.
“They didn’t expect the show to be down over 20 percent (compared with last year),” said one media buyer, who did not wish to be identified for fear of jeopardizing business relationships.
Although they are pillars of the same network, the people behind the cameras on “American Idol” and “X Factor” have been tangling for years. Fox lawyers are scrambling to settle a lawsuit filed last year by Fuller against Simon over “The X Factor.”
Fuller sued Cowell in 2004 for copyright infringement over the British version of “X Factor,” claiming “striking similarities to the ‘Idol’ format.” According to court papers, Fox believed the British litigation could have a “ruinous effect on ‘American Idol’ and other business interests” and brokered a settlement.
Under the 2005 settlement, Fox promised to keep ‘X Factor’ off the air during “Idol’s” January through May run and give Fuller, a British impresario previously known for developing the Spice Girls into a hit-making act, an executive producer credit on “X Factor” — even though he had no operational role on the show. Last year, Fuller filed suit again, saying that Fox had reneged on the credit arrangement; that suit is still pending and, according to Fuller’s rep, settlement talks are underway.
Fox executives scoff at the notion, however, that “Idol” might be reaching the end of its glory days. It’s still a top show in its 11th season — a feat that has not been equaled since “Cheers” was a hit for NBC nearly 20 years ago.
Equally important: “Idol” is still producing musical stars. Last year’s winner, Scotty McCreery, released a smash country album that recalled the early successes of another “Idol” victor, Carrie Underwood.
And the first “Idol” winner, Kelly Clarkson, just grabbed the No. 1 spot on the iTunes singles chart. Her song has a chorus that Fox executives might want to sing along with: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
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