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‘American Idol’ returns with big plans, deals

Last year, Prince. This year, Paul McCartney and Mariah Carey?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Last year, Prince. This year, Paul McCartney and Mariah Carey?

As “American Idol” starts singing again Tuesday, those connected with the Fox blockbuster acknowledge few limits when it comes to guest stars or ratings or product spinoffs. Or even rampant enthusiasm.

“This is the greatest music talent show ever,” judge Randy Jackson asserted in a telephone news conference last week.

Fellow jurist Paula Abdul calls the show a “cultural phenomenon”: “I get a kick out of the fact that there’s not a day, not an hour, that goes by without someone talking about it, asking about it,” she told The Associated Press.

Cecile Frot-Coutaz, who oversees “American Idol” as chief executive officer of producer FremantleMedia North America Inc., is more measured but no less upbeat about the upcoming season six, and beyond.

“I don’t see anything that tells me that it’s about to fall off the air,” she said. “We won’t be there for quite some time.”

It’s a defensible position regarding the No. 1 TV series.

Ratings continue to climbAgainst expectations for an established series, “American Idol” has gained in the ratings, up 14 percent from 2005 (26.8 million average viewers) to 2006 (30.6 million). The finale with winner Taylor Hicks drew more than 36 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That topped the 2005 season-ender, in which Carrie Underwood claimed the title, and made it the third most-watched event of ‘06 after the Super Bowl and Academy Awards.

The most impressive number has a dollar sign in front of it — “American Idol” reportedly brings in $500 million a year in TV ad dollars. (Fox, a unit of News Corp., declined comment on the figure.)

Even impartial observers see blue skies directly ahead.

“There seems to be the same degree of fascination going into this season as there was last season,” said analyst Bill Carroll of ad-buyer Katz Television. “It’s sort of become the event of the year for viewers.”

The series begins with a pair of two-hour episodes airing 8-10 p.m. EST Tuesday and Wednesday and featuring auditions in Minneapolis and Seattle. Details of a previously announced song-writing contest for the eventual winner’s first single are pending, Frot-Coutaz said.

“American Idol,” produced by FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment, returns with a richer gloss than ever. Last year’s finale included a surprise appearance by Prince, among the highest-profile guest stars and far removed from such golden oldie visitors as Rod Stewart.

“Prince blew the doors off. He is one of the quintessential ones of our time,” Jackson said. Frot-Coutaz’s take: “The fact we can get Prince is a real tribute to the show. ... (now) who knows who we can get?”

McCartney, an iconic figure who’s an impressive “get” for any venture, is being courted and is rumored to be part of the new season. Carey may also end up on the guest list.

“Nothing’s locked,” Frot-Coutaz said of the ex-Beatle. “We’ve had discussions with him over the years. It’s always a matter of making it work.”

In Carey’s case, record producer-cum-judge Jackson may be the key: He and the singer are friends and have a long professional association. Jackson said they have “tossed it around a bit” but have yet to set her appearance.

More evidence of the power of “American Idol” is the stunning “Dreamgirls” film debut of Jennifer Hudson, a 2004 also-ran (to winner Fantasia Barrino) who’s up for a Golden Globe and considered a potential Oscar nominee.

That’s alongside the best-selling CDs and singles churned out by past winners including Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, and the awards they’ve collected that include Grammy and Country Music Association trophies.

All this from a show that the American division of FremantleMedia (the production arm of media conglomerate Bertelsmann AG’s RTL Group) went into “quietly and cautiously optimistic” despite the format’s success in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, Frot-Coutaz said.

“Music hadn’t worked on American TV for a while, so I think we filled a gap,” she said.

And connected with the future. In an interactive, consumer-driven age that prompted Time magazine to declare “You” its person of the year 2006, “American Idol” can claim it had the zeitgeist down cold when it debuted in 2002.

“America’s choosing the idol,” said analyst Shari Anne Brill of ad-buying firm Carat USA. Viewers “have a real way of participating, as opposed to being armchair athletes.”

Frot-Coutaz cites a number of other factors in the show’s popularity, including the chemistry of judges Jackson, Abdul and the acerbic Simon Cowell and the once-yearly run that keeps the program eagerly awaited.

Then there’s the mission.

“You’re really impacting somebody’s life,” said the executive. “The show’s genuinely looking for superstar contestants who really want to be pop stars. It’s not a fake-ish competition just for TV. The show delivers entertainment, but there is a very serious aim to it.”

The “Idol” franchise, which originated with Britain’s “Pop Idol,” represents more than a hit TV series seen worldwide and reproduced in more than 30 international versions. It’s also part of a merchandising empire that may be poised for a leap.

According to Advertising Age magazine, FremantleMedia has deals set or is in negotiations for new products including a theme-park attraction and cell-phone downloads of show performances. Items already sold include clothing, books, toys and an “Idol”-themed Barbie doll, with a Monopoly game coming this season.

The magazine report is a “bit premature” in what it outlined, “but there’s a lot of things in the works,” said Frot-Coutaz. “Some happen, some don’t; it just depends.”

As the sixth season begins, she said, “we’re feeling more confident about our ability to go out and really turn this into a bigger brand than just a TV show. It takes a few years before you can get to” that point.

Abdul — strongly identified with the show, along the other judges who whittle down the initial field of contestants, and host Ryan Seacrest — gives the reported plans a qualified endorsement.

“As long as the taste level and structure is classy, edgy and exemplifies what we do, I’m all for it. You can’t deny the magnitude of this show. But just for them to make money and not care about integrity is ridiculous,” she said.

As for the bulwark of it all, “American Idol” itself, the horizon is limitless if the program does its job right, according to Jackson.

“I think there’s an abundance of talent in America. ... I think the show can continue to be successful as long as we go out and find great talent,” he said.