- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

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,” recalls Mr. 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 Mr. Fuller has made a hit TV show seem an obvious, even puny ambition as Idolmania has swept across the pop-culture realm.

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Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson are among the Idol singers rewarded with instant careers in music, movies and theater. A chorus of enterprises have gotten a dusting of “Idol” magic as well, from Dreyer’s ice cream 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.

The charity initiative Idol Gives Back raised $64 million in 2008 for groups including the Children’s Health Fund and Malaria No More.

Mr. 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 has been a lucrative exercise for Mr. Fuller and others. His 19 Entertainment, a division of CKX Inc., recently reported an operating profit of $92.5 million, a 37 percent increase over 2008’s $67.4 million. Mr. Fuller’s net worth in 2008 reportedly approached $1 billion.

The show is a money machine for Fox, which gave “American Idol” a modest summertime 2002 tryout at the urging of Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the network. A 30-second commercial on “Idol” costs around $500,000 and rises to more than $600,000 for the finale, says Ray Dundas, an analyst for the ad-buying firm Initiative. Other top 10 shows, such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” get closer to $240,000 per half-minute ad, he says

The difference reflects the size of the “Idol” audience and the fact that it can deliver the elusive young-adult viewers preferred by advertisers, Mr. Dundas says.

“American Idol” 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, says Mike Darnell, Fox’s president of alternative entertainment.

“‘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,” says Steve Knopper, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age.” Miss Underwood has sold 10 million record albums; Miss Clarkson is just shy of that with sales of 9.5 million. Both are multiple Grammy winners and critical favorites.

It’s going to be “harder and harder” to sell records in the dramatically changing industry, Mr. Knopper says, and that includes performers launched by “American Idol.”

Even if its empire is diminished, the show may endure. “How long did ‘American Bandstand’ last — 30 years, 40 years?” Mr. Knopper asks. “I think ‘Idol’ is built in that universal way. It’s a talent show. It’s not reinventing the wheel.”

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