HitFix

What if FOX didn’t take a chance on ‘American Idol’?

This week HitFix is revisiting some of the key turning points in recent entertainment history and considering what would have happened if history had turned a bit differently. What if…?
In 2001, Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller came to the United States and attempted to pitch a format based on the British hit “Pop Idol,” a singing competition show that was making Cowell into a sensation Across the Pond. American networks, however, were not interested. Yes, “Survivor” had opened the door for primetime competition reality programming on network TV, but “Pop Idol” was seen as being less like “Survivor” and more like “Popstars,” which aired with minimal success on The WB. But then, the story goes, Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth, a fan of “Pop Idol,” made a passionate pitch for FOX to take an interest in a little show that became…  “American Idol.” The rest, as we say, is history. “American Idol” became a summer hit in 2002 and, starting in 2003, it became the irreplaceable centerpiece of FOX’s spring lineup, anchoring an unprecedented streak of 18-49 demo crowns for the network and launching countless singing, acting and hosting careers. But… 
What if Rupert Murdoch’s daughter hadn’t been a fan of “Pop Idol”?
Three things that wouldn’t have happened:
1) FOX’s run of success and many of the hits that went with it. This is pretty much a no-brainer. FOX became a ratings juggernaut rather heavily on the back of “American Idol,” which kept appearing in January and erasing the stench of disastrous falls, of duds like “The Rebel Billionaire.” In fact, “American Idol” allowed FOX to pretty much pretend like fall is an annual mulligan. And then “American Idol” entered and give huge boosts to shows like “House” and “24” and “Glee” and “The O.C.” Don’t get me wrong, FOX has had a few hits that haven’t been even slightly influenced by “Idol,” but let’s just look at the basics: For the 2001-2002 show, FOX had ONE show among TV’s most-watched (“The Simpsons” at No. 39) and only two in the Top 50 (add “Malcolm in the Middle”). There’s no foundation there that even hints at the possibility of an eight-year streak of wins among adults 18-49. With NBC already on a downward arc, a TV landscape without “Idol” and therefore without FOX as a strong contender, suggests that CBS’ domination of the past decade could have been even greater.
2) Ryan Seacrest. Period.  I don’t know if you appreciate how big a deal this is and I wouldn’t want to pre-suppose that Ryan Seacrest’s insatiable ambitions wouldn’t have been fulfilled some other way, but if “Idol” hadn’t juxtaposed Seacrest with Brian Dunkleman and hadn’t given him an ever-burgeoning platform, the array of things that either wouldn’t exist or would exist on a totally different scope is legion. Yes, life without an omnipotent Ryan Seacrest would have precluded duds like NBC’s “Momma’s Boys” and perhaps saved us thousands of banal red carpet questions on E! But would E! even exist today without Seacrest’s pipeline of Kardashian-infused reality dreck? Would we know who Scott Disick is? Would any of the Jenners ever have a public platform? Who would be the mother of Kanye West’s child? But moving away from E!, would even the most popular of radio DJs have been able to introduce us to the Shahs of Sunset? Or to become Dick Clark’s heir apparent on New Year’s Eve?
3) Radio, iTunes and record labels wouldn’t have had a decade of reliable cash cows. The music industry had already shifted dramatically when “Idol” premiered and it was already conventional wisdom that it was nearly impossible to break new artists as album-selling sensations. “Idol” showed up and spawned platinum sensations like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, Scotty McCreery, Phillip Phillips and more. “Idol” produced dozens of performers capable of selling out small venues or of toplining Broadway shows and touring companies. “Idol” dominated iTunes singles charts and helped turn iTunes singles purchases into a normal part of music-buying. And the “Idol” effect reinvigorated catalogue sales for countless established artists. This isn’t to suggest that without “Idol,” our lives would be without music today, but it’s almost impossible to fathom what today’s mainstream music business [or Broadway/touring theatrical business] would look like. Short answer: Totally different.
Three things that might have happened:
1) “Joe Millionaire” becomes FOX’s reality template… and fizzles . Let’s make this clear: FOX’s 2002-2003 turnaround wasn’t 100 percent “Idol”-driven. In fact, for that season, “Joe Millionaire” was TV’s most watched show. Without an “Idol” template to attempt to follow with “American Juniors” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” FOX reality guru Mike Darnell is forced to milk lone reality hit more aggressively. That means more variations on “Temptation Island” and “Paradise Hotel,” formats that became too “dirty” for new-look FOX. It also means more attempts to recapture the magic of “Joe Millionaire.” Sure, the sequel might have tanked, but I guarantee you that in an “Idol”-free world, “Jane Millionaire,” “Joe Millionaire 3” and “Evan Marriott’s Revenge” all would have taken place. I can imagine four or five different shows built around butler Paul Hogan. Somehow, I suspect Mike Darnell’s reputation would look slightly different if the failed installments of “Forever Eden” and “Mr. Personality” piled up on one side of the ledger without “Idol” as a perpetual counterbalance.
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