NEW YORK (Billboard) - Could it be? The man behind the show seen in millions of TV homes each week is, himself, camera shy? “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller admits that it’s true.
But from his position securely offstage, Fuller can revel in the success of “Idol” as it reaches the May 21 climax of its seventh season.
“Idol” continues to drive the Fox network to the top of the ratings. The show, for example, drew 27.8 million viewers the night of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries in February, according to Nielsen, easily outdrawing the election coverage on other networks.
The 2007 finale was seen by more than 33 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, and a total of 74 million votes were cast.
From its origins as “Pop Idol” in the United Kingdom, Fuller’s franchise has spread to more than 100 territories on six continents.
And with its winning formula of unknown talent, love-‘em-or-hate-‘em judges and viewers as voting A&R reps, the show continues to shatter traditional music industry dogma on discovering new artists.
Fuller, while clearly delighted with the success, is not one given to analytical hindsight or nostalgia.
“‘American Idol’ was purely invented to give me new leverage in the music industry, without my having to go cap in hand to the record companies,” he says.
No chance of that now.
The partnership between Fuller’s 19 Recordings and Sony BMG has yielded a string of platinum-plus albums by “Idol” winners and finalists, according to Nielsen SoundScan: Carrie Underwood’s “Some Hearts” (6.4 million units), Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” (4 million), Daughtry’s self-titled debut album (4 million), Clay Aiken’s “Measure of a Man” (2.8 million) and Fantasia’s “Free Yourself” (1.8 million). Self-titled debuts by Taylor Hicks and 2007 winner Jordin Sparks have sold 700,000 and 655,000 units, respectively.
“The beauty of the show is it is truly the American dream,” says Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of Fremantle North America, which produces “Idol.”
“The recording companies are looking for a pop star and the viewers are looking for a pop star. Everything has been reinforced; everything was aligned. Some of that is great execution and very careful care, and some of that is everything came together at the right moment.”
Frot-Coutaz acknowledges that Fuller’s multimedia master plan was evident from the start. “Absolutely, the intention for Simon was to impact the recording industry and the Internet,” she says. “It was very much his goal to find that next pop-star artist. He had a very clear vision this would completely change the music industry.”
Fuller began his flirtation with the small screen in 1999, when he determined that a sugary pop group he was managing called S Club 7 would have a better shot at success if he could only get them into consumers’ living rooms.
Thus was born “Miami 7,” a sitcom featuring the group members that drew a global viewing audience of 90 million, according to 19 Entertainment, and propelled the act to four No. 1 singles in the United Kingdom.
A few years later, Fuller conceived of “I Dream” for the latest incarnation of S Club, a musical drama series that bears more than a passing resemblance to some of the hottest tween shows on TV almost a decade later.
When Fuller pitched “American Idol” to U.S. networks, it was turned down by everyone — twice, says Jeff Frasco, Fuller’s longtime agent at Creative Artists Agency.
“But for Simon it wasn’t about just doing a television show,” Frasco says. “It was more about him understanding there had to be another way for him to promote artists. It was another example of him catching another trend not only in television but foreseeing that labels and radio were going to need a lot more help to get artists out there. And he keeps making it better all the time.
“‘Idol’ is a platform good for X amount of records depending on who comes off the show in a given year,” Frasco adds. “Beyond the show there’s a serious amount of artist development that goes into what Simon does. It’s the ‘it factor’ of the show, yes, and the talent, but then it’s really how the (artists) are developed and how much care he puts into mapping out their careers over the long term.”
Fuller has leveraged “Idol” to launch similarly formatted series “So You Think You Can Dance?,” now in its fourth season on Fox and seen in 15 additional global markets; “All American Girl”; and “The Next Great American Band,” which debuted on Fox in fall 2007.
Fuller hopes to perpetuate his kind of music TV yet again with a new series that 19 Entertainment will develop for NBC. (Meanwhile, contrarian “Idol” judge Simon Cowell has stepped into the executive producer chair for “America’s Got Talent” and “Britain’s Got Talent.”) Now, Fuller is ready to expand his TV horizons, seeking new audiences across the gamut of broadcast and cable networks.
A show about Ruud Gullit’s first year as coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team has been shot and sold to 32 international markets and is expected to air on Fox Sport or ESPN later this year. A pilot for the Fuller-created real-time medical drama “Austin Golden Hour,” which marries the drama of “ER” with the tick-tock of “24,” was under consideration at the CW at press time. And a U.S. adaptation of the irreverent British series “Little Britain” is in production for HBO.
Of course, there’s always the possibility of a one-off show for a client or a cause Fuller cares deeply about. The celebrity-fueled charitable powerhouse “Idol Gives Back,” for one, has raised more than $160 million, according to 19 Entertainment.
“That was not an easy sell at the beginning,” Frot-Coutaz says. “Something like that had never been done before, and there were a lot of questions and concerns. But Simon is a real believer. He doesn’t get bogged down in thinking you can’t do this for this or that reason. He gets an idea and brings people around to seeing that they can find a way to make it work.”