By LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES — In 2001, Simon Cowell figured a singing contest snapped up by British TV would be an easy sell in America. Instead, network responses ranged from lukewarm to hostile.
“I was thrown out in one pitch meeting. After 30 seconds, the guy told me to get out,” recalled Cowell, making the rounds with entertainment mogul Simon Fuller. “The main thing we were being told was music doesn’t work on TV in prime-time. We tried to explain that there’s lot more than music on the show.”
So much for Hollywood acumen: The international “Idol” empire founded by Fuller has made a hit TV show seem an obvious, even puny ambition as Idolmania has swept across the pop culture realm.
The talent contest has “created this whole zeitgeist, and it’s really about Americans and participating in creating a celebrity of their own,” said media analyst Shari Ann Brill of Carat USA.
Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson are among the singers rewarded with instant careers in music, movies and in theater. A chorus of enterprises has gotten a dusting of “Idol” magic as well, from Dreyer’s ice cream (Cookies N Dreamz among the novelty flavors) to a Disney World attraction to the “Karaoke Revolution Presents American Idol” video game. A deal with iTunes for exclusive show video and song downloads last season coincided with Apple’s emergence as the nation’s leading music retailer.
There’s even altruistic value in the franchise: The charity initiative Idol Gives Back raised $64 million in 2008 for groups including Children’s Health Fund and Malaria No More.
Fuller, who started it all with Britain’s “Pop Idol” and carried the concept to the United States and more than 35 TV markets worldwide, told The Times of London that “pure, simple television is not that interesting for me; what’s far more interesting is trying to create a cult effect.”
It’s been a lucrative exercise for Fuller and others. His 19 Entertainment, a division of CKX Inc., last week reported an operating profit of $92.5 million, a 37 percent increase over 2008’s $67.4 million. Fuller’s net worth in 2008 reportedly approached $1 billion.
FremantleMedia, which teams with 19 Entertainment in producing the U.S. version, exporting the format and licensing, is another winner. FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz is an executive producer of “American Idol.”
For Fox, which gave “American Idol” a modest summertime 2002 tryout at the urging of Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the network, the show is a money machine. A 30-second commercial on “Idol” costs around $500,000 and rises to more than $600,000 for the finale, said Ray Dundas, an analyst for ad-buying firm Initiative. By comparison, he said, other top 10 shows, such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” get closer to $240,000 per half-minute ad.
The difference reflects both the size of the “Idol” audience and the fact that it can deliver the elusive young adult viewers preferred by advertisers, Dundas said.
“American Idol,” in short, big-foots broadcasting.
It has dominated as the most-watched series since its third year, a pattern that’s holding true this season even as ratings dip in an overall TV slump. Two-hour “American Idol” episodes on Tuesday have averaged 58 percent more viewers than the closest competition, CBS’ “NCIS” and “The Mentalist” (27 million for “Idol” vs. 17 million each for the CBS shows).
“I don’t believe there will ever be another show like this. It’s the last of its breed” as the consumer pool is increasingly splintered by broadcast, cable, DVRs and the Internet, said Mike Darnell, Fox’s president of alternative entertainment.
As a trendsetter, “Idol” has served as blueprint for a generation of shows in which contestants — whether singing, dancing, skating, playing the fiddle or swallowing fire — are vetted by a triad that includes one wasp-tongued TV judge, preferably with a foreign accent.
Len Goodman of “Dancing with the Stars” and Nigel Lythgoe of “So You Think You Can Dance” (and a former “Idol” producer) are part of the elite group.
(The template, Cowell, who has become a talent show producer with “America’s Got Talent” and the U.K. hit “The X Factor,” dismisses the copycatting as “gratuitous.”)
“Idol” singers remain irresistible gossip fodder, with unknowns such as this year’s drama queen Tatiana Del Toro heaped with water-cooler and online attention, at least for the moment.
Some “Idol” alumni have earned the ultimate — if unwelcome — proof of fame: They’ve become newsmakers, whether by dint of tragedy (Hudson, who lost family members to murder) or sexual orientation (Clay Aiken came out as gay when he announced the birth of his son).
Whatever the headlines, the “Idol” brand itself remains coveted by major companies. Ford Motor Co., Coca-Cola Co. and AT&T have on the show, McDonald’s offered “Idol” Happy Meals and Disney World’s Hollywood Studios just opened The American Idol Experience.
Michael Jung, a vice president with Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment, helped develop the attraction that gives visitors to the Orlando, Fla., park the chance to compete, vote and perform a la “Idol.”
“It gives you a taste of that next Cinderella story. You could be the next ‘American Idol,’ Jung said. “It’s so organic to the new American dream: It’s all about celebrity and fame. ... But what I really respect about ‘American Idol’ is it’s really talent-based.”
There’s statistical support for that contention.
Underwood has sold 10 million record albums; Clarkson is just shy of that with sales of 9.5 million. And both are multiple Grammy winners and critical favorites — not bad for a talent show that critics say is guilty of cheesy exploitation of the overtly untalented.
“‘American Idol’ for the record industry is one of the few bright spots over the last seven, eight years. No one else has figured out the magic formula for selling records, and ‘American Idol’ has one,” said Steve Knopper, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age.”
“It’s old-fashioned when you think of it: TV helps you sell records,” Knopper said, a lesson as old as the 1960s U.S. introduction of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Hudson’s album sales are under 1 million, but she’s doing OK: She won an Academy Award for “Dreamgirls.”
Other contestants have turned to stage careers, including Diana DeGarmo (“Hairspray”), Aiken (“Monty Python’s Spamalot”), Fantasia Barrino (“The Color Purple”), Frenchie Davis (“Rent”) and Constantine Maroulis (“The Wedding Singer”), who returns to Broadway in April in “Rock of Ages.”
“I love watching ‘American Idol’ because it’s just like going to open calls that I didn’t have to organize,” said Broadway and film casting director Bernard Telsey, citing a variety of reasons he looks to “Idol” contestants.
Maroulis (a 2005 show alum) was cast in “Rock of Ages” because “he’s the best actor suited for the role. Being billed as an ‘American Idol’ runner-up is old news.”
Barrino, however, represented “an exciting piece of casting. ... Going after her was clearly not only a talent decision but also big ... business news,” Telsey said of the 2004 “Idol” winner.
But even Barrino couldn’t score in the publishing world, the one arena in which “Idol” falters: Her autobiography “Life Is Not a Fairy Tale” has sold 49,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. Clarkson and Jordin Sparks biographies sold under 1,000 each.
Otherwise, “American Idol” is in tune with fans. Can that last?
It’s going to be “harder and harder” to sell records in the dramatically changing industry, Knopper said, and that includes performers launched by “American Idol.”
Yet even if its empire is diminished the show may endure.
“How long did ‘American Bandstand’ last — 30 years, 40 years?” Knopper said. “I think ‘Idol’ is built in that universal way. It’s a talent show. It’s not reinventing the wheel.”