How 'American Idol' saved -- then screwed -- Fox

Once the network's savior, the blockbuster singing competition lulled a once-bold network into playing it safe

Tonight marks the beginning of the end for "American Idol," which Fox is finally quitting after a 15-season run. Though the relationship started out smashingly, with "Idol" propelling the network to ratings highs and perpetually "saving" the network upon its return every year, the breakup sees both parties walking away in rough shape. Once again, a network allowed a good thing to turn into an addiction. And that addiction ultimately left the network in a weakened position.

How does this keep happening?

First, a little history: "Idol" arrived at a time when broadcasters were first realizing there were opportunities in the summer. When ABC gave "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" a two-week trial run in August 1999, it proved there was an audience just waiting to be claimed. CBS struck gold the next summer with "Survivor," which saw its ratings rise each week in that inaugural season (a rare feat most recently achieved by "Empire"). The Eye net also scored big with "Big Brother" that season, confirming that a summer show could create buzz among the young demographics the advertisers covet. 

Fox, not surprisingly, also wanted a piece of that summer action. And along came "Idol" on June 11, 2002.

"Idol" was an immediate smash, eventually becoming a weekly arena for about 28 million viewers (and a reliable launching pad for some of today’s top musical acts). The singing competition concept was not new, of course. "Star Search" ran in first-run syndication from 1983 to 1995 (and returned on CBS in January 2003 in the wake of "Idol’s" success). Decades before that was pioneer "Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts," which aired from 1948 to 1958. 

But what set "Idol" apart was the chemistry among host Ryan Seacrest (we, much like history, will forget about ill-fated first-season co-host Brian Dunkleman) and the trio of initial judges — Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. It was lightning in a bottle, and an example of how a seemingly tired genre can succeed with a dose of originality.  

"Idol" finished first overall in primetime for eight straight seasons, normally lifting Fox to No. 1 among adults 18-49 (and all the key young adult demographics). This success, truly unprecedented, proved that one series could ignite a network. And it enabled Fox to charge a premium to sponsors looking to be positioned within "Idol." Even they were fooled into believing Fox had an all-around solid schedule, when the brunt of its strength actually stemmed from a single show.

With success, however, comes a common network sin: complacency. Yes, Fox tried to capitalize on "Idol" as a lead-in with sitcoms like "Stacked" (with Pamela Anderson), "Breaking In" (with Christian Slater) and "Life on a Stick" (with no one), as well as "The Osbournes Reloaded"—a variety show that died after a single episode—and failed reality competition "Unan1mous." But nothing worked, echoing those years when NBC failed to capitalize on the success of "must see" sitcoms "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Frasier."

Fox was once a network known for taking creative risks (think "Beverly Hills, 90210," "The X-Files" and "The Simpsons"). But the network clung to "Idol" like a security blanket. As long as the show held up—and there were barely any signs of slippage in those first eight seasons—Fox knew it would be No. 1 overall in the key demos. So it became less aggressive in terms of series development. But someone at the top should have foreseen the future when the singing competition would end. Instead, the network ran "Idol" up to three nights a week, speeding us toward the day the audience would tire of it. 

Predictably, time took its toll. Cowell left, and ratings for "Idol" began to plummet. And now, Fox will be faced with filling three to four additional hours in midseason once this final season ends. Reviving "The X-Files" (not to mention "24" in the summer of 2014) only magnifies the trouble Fox has had finding new hit shows. Had "Idol" never been in the equation, Fox simply would have had to try harder.

The situation feels uncomfortably similar to ABC after "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" exited in 2002. "Idol," of course, never did air five nights per week like "Millionaire" did. And its tenure in primetime lasted longer than two-and-a-half seasons. But the rise–and fall–of the Regis-hosted game show (now a diluted first-run staple in daytime) left ABC totally unprepared and vulnerable. It was not until the arrival of scripted hours "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" in the fall of 2004 that the network had something worth talking about again.

The moral of this story is programming. ABC knew no other game show could fill the shoes of "Millionaire," so it wisely (if belatedly) looked outside the box, found two fresh scripted concepts, promoted them like there was no tomorrow and put itself back on the map. While Fox has the advantage of now housing "Empire," there are potholes aplenty elsewhere. Like every broadcast network, depending too heavily on one specific show (or genre, in the case of NBC) can easily result in the situation Fox now finds itself. 

Success for any broadcast network means looking forward and not basking in the past. And 15 seasons for "American Idol" was probably three–or four–too many. As a word of advice to any network, the next time you find a bona fide hit, start looking for its replacement.

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