Can we learn anything from ‘American Idol’ losing to the Olympics?

02.18.10 7 years ago 3 Comments

Luca Bruno/AP

My morning ratings story didn’t really do justice to the history that was made on Wednesday (Feb. 17) night.
To be honest, I was a little too incredulous to even process the information. 
NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics beat “American Idol,” making it the first time “American Idol” has lost in its own time slot since 2004. That was a little surprising, but the notable part wasn’t just that “American Idol” had gone down, but that it was utterly crushed. How utterly crushed? Try 30.07 million viewers to 18.42 million viewers. That’s the kind of crushing that “Idol” used to do to its competition before “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds” proved capable of sandbagging a respectable audience against the “American Idol” tidal wave.
But “Idol” losing in total viewers to the Olympics wasn’t even the most shocking part. In fact, if “Idol” had lost on Tuesday facing mens’ figure skating, it might not have even been an upset. The shocking part was how soundly the Olympics beat “American Idol” in the key 18-49 demographic, where NBC averaged a 9.0 rating, compared to the 6.9 rating for “Idol.” And although “American Idol” is a show that traditionally grows in its second half-hour, the Olympics actually increased their margin of victory from 2.0 ratings points to 2.3 ratings points at the half-hour. 
So if I underplayed the Olympics win and the “American Idol” in my ratings story, it was only because part of me expected to get an e-mail retracting the information and restoring order.
[More after the break…]
There’s a tendency whenever anything out-of-the-ordinary happens to ask “What does this MEAN?” as if a one-time ratings oddity were a sign of television’s shifting tectonic plates.
At least one Twitter follower inquired, “[D]oes this mean American Idol is on its last leg? Hallelujah!”
Keep in mind that one night earlier, facing one of the Olympiad’s supposed marquee events, “American Idol” topped NBC by 4 million-ish viewers and by more than 4 ratings points in the key demo.
No. One night losing against The Spirit of America does not me that “American Idol” is on its last leg or even that it’s a wounded animal of some sort. This won’t embolden other networks to go more proactively head-to-head with “American Idol,” because other than CBS, no other network has anything even vaguely capable of mixing it up with Simon Cowell and company. 
So what can we learn from the Olympics beating “American Idol”? Let’s close our eyes, squint and try to pretend.
1) Nothing.
That’s what I’ve got. 
OK. Fine. I’ll try a little harder.
5) “American Idol” is as capable of being lead-in dependent as any show on TV. On Tuesday night, “American Idol” had “American Idol” as its lead-in, so viewers picked FOX early and stuck with FOX and there was no way NBC to pick up viewers. On Wednesday, “Human Target” drew only 7.1 million viewers in the 8 p.m. hour. With no other competition to speak of, NBC hooked 26.6 million at 8 p.m. and, by properly teasing the rest of the night’s programming, made sure that it was almost unpatriotic to change the channel. While “American Idol” added 11 million viewers to its lead-in, that wasn’t enough. It was even harder for “Idol” to start from scratch in the 18-49 demo, where “Human Target” provided only a 2.3 rating as a lead-in. That doesn’t take into account that the Olympics also grew in the 9 p.m. hour, but next Tuesday and Wednesday, “Idol” goes to two-hour performance episodes and I suspect it’ll be back on top, at least in the key demo. [FOX didn’t really gain much from swapping “Human Target” and “American Idol,” at least before the Olympics. Any traction “Human Target” recovered last week was lost on Wednesday.]
4) Hollywood Week Fatigue. No part of the “American Idol” process is more fragile than Hollywood Week. When it’s good, viewers want more of the bickering and stressing out. When it’s dull, viewers are already prepared to start voting. You’d be hard pressed to find any “Idol” fan who would disagree with my contention that this year’s Hollywood Week lasted at least one hour too long (possibly two or three). The first night’s solo performances were a revelation. The second night’s Group performances, usually a Hollywood Week favorite, were a total disappointment. And this week, FOX milked two hours out of separating contestants into three rooms and then the opening leg of The Chair of Doom, often giving fans only four or five minutes of programming per segment. After those painfully flabby two hours, what “Idol” fan could be blamed for feeling like they’d done their pre-Top 24 due diligence?
3) Canned sports results are different from other canned results. Very little of what happened on Wednesday night was live, so viewers were forced to choose between two competitions whose results they could learn in two seconds at their computers. The big sporting event that NBC programmed opposite “American Idol” was the women’s downhill, an event that Lindsey Vonn won sometime in the mid-afternoon ET. Although those results had been “spoiled” (if you can spoil a live sporting event being watched live by most nations outside of NBC’s militaristic embargo) everywhere, viewers tuned in anyway, either because they wanted to see the photogenic American win or because they wanted to watch other competitors fall down. Either way, that was preferable to “American Idol,” which was also reporting results that had been disseminated throughout the Internet weeks earlier. 
The “American Idol” spoiler lists have become so fast and so accurate that it’s well past time for the show to change the Top 24 reveal. Have Hollywood Week, let the judges make their decision, but don’t tell the contestants until a week before the Top 24 starts. One proposal: Have 24 past “Idol” contestants travel the country and show up at the doors of the 24 Finalists holding a Golden Ticket of some sort. Make it a live special, at least on the East Coast. Viewers will always still watch the auditions for the discovery and for the freaks, but culminating Hollywood Week with three hours of faux suspense when I could have gone to any one of 500 websites and seen the names of 23 of the 24 finalists and then watch canned  skiing, is an outmoded model.
2) USA! USA! USA! NBC flacks have been calling Wednesday the greatest day in Winter Olympics history. And that’s a very good reflection of how NBC’s Olympics coverage views the rest world. Was Wednesday even the greatest day in American Winter Olympics history? Of course not. Do you believe in miracles? I sure do. But Team USA had the most prolific day in Winter Olympics history on Wednesday and NBC parsed out the different wins brilliantly, using Vonn as the “Idol”-killer and closing with the undeniably exciting Shaun White, who would probably rank his repeat Olympic win as a life experience somewhere below his gazillion X-Games titles and roughly on par with a gnarly tri-tip burrito he once got in Santa Barbara. If Vonn had been unable to compete due to her ailing shins what would NBC have programmed on Wednesday? Who knows. But without Vonn and White and Shani Davis, NBC probably doesn’t win on Wednesday night. That’s just a reflection of audiences, already over-invested in Olympics viewing at this point anyway, favoring American idols over “American Idol.” As much as those NCIS and FBI people save the day every week, they’re only fictional American idols, so there isn’t much chance that Michael Weatherly or Thomas Gibson is going to rival the McFlurry 575, or whatever Shaun White’s next trick is called.
That’s why the most important thing we learned from The Olympics crushing “American Idol” on Wednesday is…
1) Nothing. It’s the Olympics, darnit. 

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