January 13, 2008 / 12:54 AM / in 10 years

"Idol" dilemma -- ratings up, sales down

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - “American Idol” is poised to set ratings records when Fox’s talent show returns to the airwaves with a four-hour season premiere on Tuesday and Wednesday.

<p>"American Idol" judges Simon Cowell (L), Paula Abdul (C) and Randy Jackson wave to the crowd during the show's finale at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, May 24, 2006. "American Idol" is poised to set ratings records when Fox's talent show returns to the airwaves with a four-hour season premiere on Tuesday and Wednesday. REUTERS/Chris Pizzello</p>

In 2006, an average of 30 million Americans watched the Wednesday night results show -- and it’s expected that those numbers could increase substantially this year thanks to the dearth of alternative viewing options as a result of the Writers Guild of America strike.

But while more and more people are giggling over the off-key auditions and Simon Cowell’s barely contained rage at Paula Abdul, album sales have not kept pace with the increasing number of viewers. Certain contestants have been standouts -- most recently, Chris Daughtry with 3.6 million in sales for his eponymous band’s debut album last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- but the overall trend is erratic.

Although the huge “Idol” ratings can only help at the outset, an artist’s result on the show isn’t necessarily any indication of his or her long-term recording career, says RCA Music Group executive VP/GM Tom Corson, whose label recently dropped 2006 winner Taylor Hicks, 2003 champ Ruben Studdard and 2006 runner-up Katharine McPhee.

“There’s TV, and then there’s recorded music,” Corson says. “The contestants vary annually -- some are more powerful in terms of record sales than others -- and it depends what genre and what kind of artist they are. Like any entertainment property, it’s an emotional and subjective purpose. You can’t really predict.”

SPUTTERING SPARKS

The most recent winner, Jordin Sparks, has sold 371,000 copies of her self-titled debut album since last November, which some have cited as below par. But Corson urges patience. “Jordin’s on her first single,” he says of “Tattoo,” a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. “There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge.” Hicks, by contrast, sold 699,000 copies of his 2006 debut.

As “Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe stresses, the TV show is the TV show, album sales are album sales, and if the twain never meet, so be it.

“I’ve never believed that record buyers are necessarily my audience,” he says. “I think that in the past with Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry and Carrie Underwood, they’re in their own genre of music, and they have that following. With Jordin and Blake (Lewis), they’re both pop singers and they are totally and utterly reliant on each song they put out there as a single. If people like the record and like the melody, they’re going to buy it because they like Jordin. But if they don’t like the record, they’re not going to buy it just because Jordin put it out. It’s not a blind following.”

This season, “Idol” is aiming to get more immediate content out to the “Idol”-obsessed fan. Lythgoe and Corson say the show hopes to boost its relationship with iTunes, offering for sale backstage footage, videos, songs and exclusives for download, with a particular emphasis on content affiliated with the show’s charity effort, Idol Gives Back.

And in an attempt to get viewers more invested in the lives of the Idols, look for fewer guest stars and mentors, and more emphasis on the backgrounds of the contestants. Instead of icons from the ‘60s acting as judges and picking songs for contestants, for instance, Lythgoe says they’ll instead ask for the singers’ parents to select their own favorite songs from the decade.

But despite the efforts to personalize the “Idol” hopefuls, it seems inevitable that the here today, gone tomorrow attitude of the TV audience makes it tough for the popularity of an Idol to stick. The two contestants most frequently cited as ongoing hitmakers, Underwood and Clarkson, are perfect examples of how hard it is to stay top of mind with the show’s viewers.

Underwood has sold an astonishing 6.2 million copies of her 2005 debut, “Some Hearts,” and so far her 2007 follow-up, “Carnival Ride,” has tallied 1.6 million. And while Clarkson is the only “Idol” to see a boost in her releases in the years after her time on the show, her 2007 album, “My December,” was maligned from the get-go and has shifted just 732,000 copies. That’s in contrast to 2004’s “Breakaway,” which is at 5.9 million sold.

As for the “Idol” alumni jettisoned by RCA, Corson says “the door is open” to Hicks, once he completes his album on his own. As for Studdard, “it was business as usual,” he says.

Reuters/Billboard

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