Media American Idol

The rise and fall of an “Idol” – The stage finally goes dark on one of America’s most commercialized franchises

May 20, 2015 | 6 min read

I was working for Jimmy Iovine at Universal Music Group in 2002, managing the company’s strategic partnerships with brands, most notably Coca-Cola. I can clearly recall a meeting with Coke’s president, Steven Heyer, during the late fall of that year where he referenced a new $40+ million investment during the second season of “American Idol.”

We were all stunned. But the show was a run away hit from nearly day one and brands like Coca-Cola were desperate to tap into its cultural and musical zeitgeist to reach the widest possible audience. And “American Idol” was IT. And the entire music “industry” was dumbfounded.

The early chorus of boos from the industry was loud and constant: “It sucked” and “who wants to watch, let alone hear, a bunch of talentless amateurs sing on TV?” But what had been a concept that CAA couldn't sell to any network and had languished for quite awhile until Coke and Elizabeth Murdoch stepped in to get it on Fox, was now the biggest hit on television. The audience had spoken.

The music industry laughed, at first, but the brand marketers did not. They spoke with their wallets and had finally found something that served up music and culture on broadcast television to a huge and primary audience at scale for them. At its height, over 100+ brands were actively bidding for the show’s media inventory and even more precious integrated sponsorships – the kind that Coke and ATT had been lucky enough to grab early on. Annual ad revenue from the series alone equaled over $900 million at one point – not including ancillary sponsorship, merchandising, touring and licensing revenue.

From a financial impact perspective, “American Idol” is quite possibly one of the most valuable media properties ever created. And that doesn't even take into account the amount of music-related sales it spawned from the artists and songs featured on the show, or the tide of other network television programming it lifted. The cultural and economic impact of the show (and its various global iterations) is nothing short of astonishing.

Before the series went on the air, conventional wisdom from the media networks was that “music didn't work on TV.” However, after ”American Idol” aired, it was quickly followed by music-driven shows ranging from “The Voice” to “The X Factor” to “Dancing with the Stars,” which along with its reality brethren “Survival,” redefined television models.

The series created legitimate music stars out of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and several others, to a lesser degree. It even turned a few unknowns and “has–been’s” like Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson into mega-celebrities – before they were displaced years later by real ones such as Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.

And once again, it turned the music industry on its ear with everyone from record labels to management companies to concert promoters now jockeying for position with the “American Idol” machine. As for my former boss, Mr. Iovine, well he used the platform better than any other to catapult his burgeoning headphones business, Beats by Dre, into a billion dollar a year business which he subsequently sold to Apple for $3.4 Billion.

Mr Iovine now works at Apple and is one of the music industry's most celebrated success stories. I’d suggest he could thank “American Idol,” in some small part, for that. And as for ATT and Coke… well ATT used the series to teach the world to text, while Coke increased its brand equity on a global scale, with its nearest competitor, Pepsi, losing significant share after originally passing on the series sponsorship before Coke.

And while “American Idol” was hugely successful, it was crassly commercial in almost every way starting with its “product integrations.” With Coke cups and Ford cars and ATT Text messages everywhere, there was nothing subtle about it. The audience had to wade through this blatant brand bizarre to get to any of the art or drama that existed, and there was some occasionally.

This kind of “branded entertainment” certainly did pave the way for some of the more thoughtful, elegant and entertaining branded content executions that now exist from marketers – ranging from Chipotle, American Express and Illycafe. However it also allowed marketers and media networks, alike, more license and territory for the continuation of these kinds of crude product placement deals.

I’d have to hold “American Idol” responsible for propagating this kind marketing which continues today, even in a world where brands have so many more digital media outlets where they can instead spark a more authentic and direct conversation with their audiences around their brands promises and products. But brands are still looking for that next big thing, that next “American Idol,” so some things may never change.

At its worst, we watched “American Idol” because of the car crash quality of the drama and, at its best, we watched because we were rooting for the underdog we secretly saw ourselves in. At its worst, brands sponsored and bought media in “American Idol” so they could insert their products into a scene or have a bit of borrowed equity from the mere association of an adjacent commercial slot; at its best, brands bought into the show because of the unparalleled ability to reach a massive audience or even scale a brand’s cultural relevance (like Beats).

And the music business, well it finally jumped all in with two feet and followed the money – like it always does. That’s why they call it the music business, but I think “American Idol” helped them see beyond just the recordings and into the new business models that are developing at places like Universal Music Group, Live Nation and Redlight Management.

But what about the art of music? Well frankly, art suffered at the feet of commercialism with “American Idol” but certainly popular culture gained a great partner in crime. RIP “American Idol.” I’m not really sorry to see you go.

Dominic Sandifer is the president and co-founder of GreenLight Media & Marketing.

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