When the producers of “American Idol” announced the addition of a fourth judge as well as various other tweaks this season, the Fox network cautioned that it didn’t expect the moves to reverse the ratings declines for TV’s No. 1 show.
And they haven’t.
Through five weeks, Season 8 of “Idol” has slipped 8% compared with last season to 26.8 million total viewers and is down 14% in the advertiser-friendly demographic adults ages 18 to 49, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.
In fact, among adults under age 50, this is the lowest-rated “Idol” (10.6 rating for the Tuesday episodes) since the first season back in summer 2002 (4.9 rating).
But Mike Darnell, Fox’s president of alternative entertainment, whose job includes overseeing “Idol” for the network, said the network has no regrets about the changes.
“I wake up every morning and I cannot believe that a show in its eighth season is as dominant as this show is,” Darnell said Friday morning.
He added that most network programs have suffered ratings drop-offs far bigger than “Idol’s” and that Fox’s singing competition still retains a huge advantage over its nearest competitors.
“If we hadn’t done these things, who knows?,” he said. “We might have been 25% or 30% off, which everyone else has been over the last few years.”
The ultimate fate of “Idol” is of huge consequence not just to television but to pop culture generally. The series has spawned numerous hits by Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry and other former contestants, just when the music industry has needed a shot in the arm. As a lead-in, the series has played a key role in boosting the dramas “24" and “House” to hit status while giving programmers room to experiment with other shows.
And for nearly seven full years “Idol” has prevented other networks, with the notable exception of CBS, from doing any midweek business worth mentioning between January and May. (CBS is the only network to post an increase this season, up 6% in total viewers on the strength of series such as “The Mentalist.”)
“Even though the show is eroding a little bit, everything else is eroding at a much greater pace,” Darnell said. “This is the only show that 15 or 20 years ago would still be considered a smash with these numbers.”
But no show lasts forever -- at least, no prime-time show does -- so now the question surrounding “Idol” is how fast the decline will come. Fox, obviously, is hoping for a soft landing -- years of modest dips a la CBS’ “Survivor.”
Darnell argues that this season’s “Idol” changes -- including adding fourth judge Kara DioGuardi, trimming the time for auditions, doubling the time devoted to the Hollywood rounds and even adding a “judges’ mansion” in Wednesday’s episode -- were necessary to avoid a feeling of stasis that could alienate core fans.
“Apathy is a killer,” Darnell said. “The audience wants you not to change the core of the show but to make subtle changes, little changes.”
“We were hearing that the audition shows, even though they were highly rated, were feeling a bit on the stretched side to keep them going for four weeks,” he added. “The stories were a little too long. Maybe we were concentrating on having too many. If a person wasn’t going forward, we’d still make a story on them. Maybe that should have been a 30-second story or 45-second story instead of a minute-and-a-half or two-minute story.”
Beefing up the Hollywood rounds invariably meant lower ratings overall, because each season the auditions during the first few weeks tend to draw the largest audiences. But Darnell said it was a trade-off worth making.
“Hollywood is where the core viewers really start to attach to people,” he said. As a result, the producers have had more time this season to develop back stories on the Top 36 contestants. “I’ve never felt better about people knowing who’s going into these middle rounds. That’s what drives the show -- an attachment to the kids drives attachment to the show.”
As for DioGuardi, who has drawn mixed reviews from critics and fans, Darnell said: “Most people seem to think she’s added to the show. She’s certainly made the judges as a group more dynamic and more entertaining because she’s added a new voice.”
Darnell also defended the producers’ handling of this season’s first major controversy -- the ejection of contestant Joanna Pacitti after it was determined that she was too close to two employees at production company 19 Entertainment. She will be replaced by Felicia Barton, whom the judges had earlier sent packing.
“Unfortunately, it was just a perceptional problem, that there [was] just too close a connection between [Pacitti and the employees], we felt,” Darnell said. “A replacement was made as a producorial and judge choice. Simple as that.”
He added: “I think it was handled correctly.”
Of course, “Idol” has weathered far more shocking scandals, including contestants posing for risque pictures and even the unaccountable tenacity of Season 6 contender Sanjaya Malakar.
Were they able to milk these mini-scandals for ratings boosts -- rather than simply causing the network and producers regular agitation with no perceptible popularity bump -- then “Idol” could conceivably be around forever.