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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 19, 2003

'Idol' most powerful show on TV, analysts say

By John Kiesewetter
Cincinnati Enquirer

Ruben Studdard is one of this season's contestants on "American Idol," which Fox bosses say will air only once a year.


Now that the "American Idol" finalists are performing on live TV, the arguments will begin: Are Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard better singers than Justin Guarini?

Will Julia DeMato or Kimberly Caldwell make people forget about Kelly Clarkson, last year's winner?

Is this "American Idol" better than last year's?

From a TV perspective, that last question is a no-brainer: This "American Idol" isn't only better than last summer's show — it's the most powerful show on prime-time television. What was just a summer sensation against reruns last year has exploded into a phenomenon, drawing 44 million viewers each week.

The Wednesday "American Idol" shows (usually 7:30 p.m. on Fox — but tonight's show is at 7) rank No. 4 among all series this season, behind "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Friends" and "Joe Millionaire." The Tuesday telecasts (7 p.m., Fox), which let viewers vote for their favorite singer, rank No. 6, following "Survivor: The Amazon."

But it's not just the ratings for Fox's twin towers that are the envy of other networks. Unlike any other show on TV — scripted or unscripted — "American Idol" has proven to be an extraordinarily expandable franchise. "American Idol" episodes seem to multiply like rabbits, while Mark Burnett has never figured out a way to stretch out CBS' popular "Survivor."

First, Fox padded the front end of "American Idol" by devoting 5 1/2 hours to auditions in January, before February sweeps started.

In the middle of February, Fox threw in "American Idol: The Best of the Worst," which featured new and old clips from its videotape stash.

Late in February, Fox threw out the rules and added four wild-card singers — not two — inflating the final field to 12.

"When they did the 'Best of the Worst,' the judges saw some singers that they really liked, and each one wanted to chose a finalist," explains Jason Clark, show publicist.

To make room for two additional performers, the Tuesday shows were extended to two hours for two weeks (March 11, yesterday) — giving Fox more unique, original programming against March reruns.

And by adding two finalists to the weekly elimination contest, Fox must add two weeks — or four more shows — to this season. So the show likely will conclude May 20-21, the final two days of May sweeps, instead of the previously announced May 6-7.

Four more top-rated "American Idol" broadcasts in May could assure Fox a victory this season in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic desired by advertisers.

Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman credits the success to Mike Darnell, the executive in charge of Fox's alternative and reality series.

"Mike is one of the great network executives," she says. "We think he's the best in the business at what he does." (They didn't say that after Fox aired his "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?," the Darva Conger-Rick Rockwell fiasco three years ago.)

Berman also remembers how ABC burned out its reality gem, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" So she's not planning two "Idols" a year to match CBS' "Survivor."

"We believe that 'American Idol' is a once-a-year program. It is not our intention to put it on in the fall," she says.