IDOL Producers Defend Seacrest Over Harassment Claim
5:15 AM PST 3/9/2018 by Marisa Guthrie
The swan song for American Idol was supposed to be two years ago. That's when more than 13 million viewers watched host Ryan Seacrest sign off from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood for the final time. But as many suspected, Seacrest's cryptic "Goodbye — for now" was prophetic.
Now ABC, which quickly snapped up Idol despite its age and high production cost, prepares to relaunch TV's one-time "Death Star" March 11 into a primetime landscape that has only become more challenging. And it will do so with an entirely new and untested judging panel and a host at the center of allegations of sexual harassment from a former stylist at NBCUniversal's E!
ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey and Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of the show's producer, FremantleMedia, voice support for Seacrest. "We stand by the results of the investigation," says Dungey, referencing the independent inquiry E! commissioned that cleared Seacrest. Adds Frot-Coutaz: "I've known Ryan now for almost 16 years. I stand by him. Obviously it's unfortunate. I'm not privy to the details. He seems to be very robust in his defense. And we'll see where it all goes."
ABC is investing significantly in the Idol franchise, part of a synergistic play among several ABC/Disney properties. But Idol had, like much of broadcast television, hemorrhaged viewers by the end of its 15-year run. Facing intense competition — including from NBC's The Voice — the show had plummeted nearly 70 percent in the ratings during the four seasons before a somewhat rejuvenated final season. (In 2003, more than 38 million people watched Ruben Studdard win season two. The series finale in 2016 was watched by 13.3 million people — at the time, Idol's best showing in three seasons.)
Yet talent salaries in the final seasons had ballooned to $45 million (Jennifer Lopez was pulling down $20 million; Seacrest, Idol's sole constant, was making $15 million). The actual cost of the show was commensurate with a network drama, about $2 million an episode, say insiders.
But the network was saddled with escalating fees that ballooned the budget. By the end of its run, Fox was paying a premium of $1 million for every episode beyond a certain threshold of about 30 hours a season; there were seasons when Fox aired as many as 60 hours of Idol. (ABC has ordered 19 episodes, which will air over 38 hours on Sunday and Monday nights.)
All of this, the media narrative went, had transformed what was once TV's most invincible property from a money minting machine (at its height, it was commanding more than $600,000 for a 30-second commercial spot) to a red-ink-laden drain on Fox's bottom line.
Will ABC make money on the reboot? It has surely streamlined its fees, though talent salaries — $25 million for Katy Perry, a little more than $10 million for Seacrest — are as eye-popping as ever. ABC and FremantleMedia executives insist Idol will not be a loss leader. "We're running a business here, so we certainly are always looking for things to be profitable," says Dungey.
For the Disney-owned network, Idol is a company-wide play: ABC kicked off auditions at Disney Spring, the entertainment complex at Disney World in Orlando, and contestants are expected to make promotional stops on ABC's Good Morning America and Live With Kelly and Ryan. In Idol's heyday, GMA and rival morning program Today — which both stage outdoor concerts during the summer — battled to land eliminated contestants. And Kelly Ripa's daytime show also was a "very desirable booking," notes one Fox source. "Now, it's extremely organic."
ABC also will use Radio Disney to promote the show, and there are myriad platforms for shortform spinoff content. "We've talked about [whether we can do] a digital show following some of the winners," adds Rob Mills, ABC's head of alternative programming.
ABC's ratings expectations are in line with the current climate. According to media buyers, the network is guaranteeing a 1.8 rating in the key 18-to-49 demographic, which seems achievable with seven days of delayed viewing factored in. ABC is averaging a 1.45 rating (through mid-February) in the demo, putting it in fourth place among its broadcast competitors and down 12 percent from last season. Still, media buyers have been bullish on Idol, a broad family-friendly program, and are ponying up nearly $200,000 for a 30-second spot, compared with a high of $150,000 on Fox during the last season. According to Dungey, the premiere is sold out, while the rest of the season is 75 percent sold.Read More...