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.
2) FOX’s reputation as That Network That Cancels Things Fast might have actually been earned. For a decade, “American Idol” has covered over a multitude of sins and allowed FOX to be supportive of less-than-successful programs with passionate fanbases. Without “Idol,” there’s zero chance that “Fringe” gets five seasons and precious little chance “Arrested Development” gets three or that “Dollhouse” and “Sarah Connor Chronicles” get to return for second seasons. Without “Idol,” maybe “House” runs for two or three years and Hugh Laurie returns to being best known for British comedies, while “24” gets two or three seasons and Kiefer Sutherland returns to being best known for having formerly been well known. “The O.C.” probably gets cancelled after three years and an entire generation of women want to kill Josh Schwartz for killing Marissa. See? Some things never change.
3) You can’t keep Paula Abdul down. In 2005, a group of disgruntled former Pixar employees find a way to bring MC Skat Kat to life on-stage and suggest a Paula Abdul comeback tour. It proves incredibly successful and in 2010, Abdul is named as the judge of an American version of the British hit “Got to Dance.” Knowing her own tendency to be excessively positive, Abdul recruits British record executive, and UK reality star, Simon Cowell as a tart counterpoint. While their dancing show is a failure on CBS, the chemistry between Abdul and the domestically unknown Cowell is combustive and in the summer of 2013, FOX launches a singing competition featuring Abdul, Cowell and a former touring bassist from Journey as judges. It proves unexpectedly successful and FOX schedules the show, titled “The Voice,” to air a second installment in January 2014.
Did history work out for the best?
FOX executives would say, “Yes.” Fans of FOX shows that have survived because of “Idol” would say “Yes.” Musical artists and executives with even an iota of introspection would say “Yes.” And other networks, even the ones crushed by the “Idol” Death Star, would probably, begrudgingly, say “Yes.” It’s not like “Idol” hasn’t helped fuel other popular competition shows on other networks. Without “Idol,” FOX never lets Simon Cowell make “The X Factor.” Without “The X Factor,” NBC is never inspired to pull a Darnell and make “The Voice.” So even the network most crushed by FOX over the past decade owes part of its hypothetical resurgence to “Idol.” People who think that reality TV and “Idol” are responsible for the death of scripted television would say, “No.” But let’s be honest. Those people are dumb. TV is better than ever and scripted TV is stronger and more prevalent than ever and “Idol” continues to exist and, often, win its time period. So, Yes. History worked out for the best, though that Paula Abdul/MC Skat Kat reunion might have been awesome.
What ripples can you imagine from a world without “American Idol” on FOX?