Thursday, March 15, 2012

American Idol: Money

Lately, I’ve been pondering the whole money thing, as it relates to Idol.

It kind of got started when I read some critic or another try to bury Idol, saying that the show has got to be getting too expensive to go on much longer.

It was rekindled when I read, not too much later, that now that The Voice is topping Idol is some key demographics, Idol wouldn’t be long for this world.

And of course, there was a big uproar when Steven Tyler claimed the show had 40 million viewers, when in reality it had a scant 20 million.

Okay, look. Look at that number. 20 million viewers. Do you know how many shows on television today have 20 million viewers? A handful. Maybe less than a handful.

As for the expense of American Idol? Here are some more numbers to look at.

Cougartown. It’s a sitcom. 30 minutes, with commercials. Cost to produce is every week? About 2 million dollars, according to one of its creators.

Now, that’s probably not overly high, given that it’s sitting near the lower end of the ratings and is always in danger of being cancelled. So let’s pretend that it costs, on average, 2 million dollars to produce a half-out of network television.


If you double that to an hour, that’s 4 million dollars. That’s probably high. Let’s back it down to 3 million, as some of the costs of making TV are going to be static, whether you’re making 30 minutes of TV or 60 minutes of TV.

So, okay, an hour of TV costs 3 million dollars to make. That’s a lot of money. I remember when ER hit the million-dollars-an-episode mark, and it was A Big Deal. The fact that the cost has likely tripled in less than 20 years is kind of amazing.

The average hour-long show goes for 22 episodes a season, though this is changing somewhat. A few dramas are now kicking out at 13 or 16 or 18 episodes. But let’s stick with 22 episodes at 3 million dollars per episode, just to simplify the math.

So: 66 million dollars will get you 22 hours of television.


Here’s the truth. I have no idea what the host/judging fees are for American Idol. I read somewhere that Steven Tyler got a six million dollar raise this year. So let’s go ahead and pretend all four of the main people: Jennifer, Steven, Randy, and Ryan, get 10 million dollars each. And that it costs another 10 million to mount the show, get everyone on a bus, rent hotel rooms, and so on. For a total of 50 million dollars.

If they got 22 hours of TV out of that, it would be a steal.

But they don’t. They get at least 50 hours. Maybe a few more if they add an extra save week. Maybe a little less when they lose someone (as they did this time around). But let’s go with 50 hours.

Now, here’s the truth. 50 million dollars is probably incredibly low. So let’s double it, to 100 million dollars.

The show is still a steal, at 2 million dollars per hour of television.

Or is it?

Well…. Idol can’t be rerun, really. So those 50 hours don’t turn into 100 hours, whereas the 22 drama hours can be turned into 44 hours of TV just by showing the same shows a second time.

However, a drama can’t be monetized the same way Idol can.

Every song you hear on Idol goes up on iTunes, and I’m quite sure Fox gets a cut of the money. For that matter, they probably get some subset of cash on every album sold by all their winners. And then there are the in-show commercials, which have to bring in a whooole lot of scratch. Coca-Cola and Ford are on the stage pretty much every second the show is on. Frankly, I’m amazed the singers don’t have to wear a Coke-themed article of clothing every week.

The point is, even if the show costs as much to make as your average drama (and it doesn’t) it’s got many, many, many revenue streams, and it’s still crushing most of the other television competition. It’ll be around for a while.

By the same token, there has also been talk of Ryan leaving the show, since his contract is up. That’s not happening either. Unless he’s really tired of making money hand over fist, I can’t conceive of any reason he would leave the show.

Not that it matters to me. I mean, he seems nice enough, but why do I care whether some dude who isn’t going to share his money with me gets rich or not?

Mostly, I’m just cranky because, as the joke goes, someone is wrong on the Internet.

I said I’d leave my judgment calls alone for a couple of weeks, and by cracky, I’m going to do that. Rereading my thoughts just confirmed my first impressions for the most part, anyway.

But as long as I’m here, a few quick thoughts:

As bad as I feel for Phillip and his kidney stones, I kind of feel like I shouldn’t have to know what’s wrong with the guy. It’s a singing competition. Why are we trying to drum up pity votes for the sick guy? Mostly, it just reminds me that this isn’t really a singing competition at all, but a popularity contest. Which is why it’s called American Idol, as opposed to “America’s Best Singer,” I suppose. Ah, well.

I was genuinely surprised when Joshua was in the bottom three guys last week. I’m not sure the guy is capable of singing a wrong note. He’s so perfectly in control of his vocal instrument, I find it a little eerie. A friend pointed out that he wasn’t in the bottom three, but the bottom three collection of guys. Still, even if he was the highest of the bottom six, that’s still way lower than I would have guessed.

The producers of AI lost 3 hours of programming due to Jermaine being pulled from the competition. The whole thing was astonishingly awkward, and I’m not sure how I feel about them broadcasting it. I suppose they felt it would be better than letting the Internet speculate about it. Still? Yikes.

(I do wonder if, now that he’s out of the race, Jimmy will quietly give him a call and give him a record deal.)

I do have some other thoughts on my cutting order from last week, based on a couple of real bad flameouts this week. But I’ll let my list ride for a bit. But just a bit.

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