'American Idol' Goes Out on a High Note. Now What?

Why Fox's Faded Chanteuse May Live to Sing Another Day

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Credit: Ray Mickshaw/Fox

"American Idol" closed its 15-year run on a high, if somewhat ambiguous note, drawing the strongest ratings for a finale since 2013 while leaving plenty of room for speculation about an eventual return engagement.

According to rush final Nielsen data, Thursday night's two-hour curtain closer averaged 13.3 million viewers and a 3.0 in Fox's target demo, which translates to 3.8 million adults 18 to 49. That marked a 77% increase from the historically low 1.7 rating "Idol" drew last May in its season 14 finale.

While the official numbers for the "Idol" finale are a far cry from what the show delivered at its peak -- back in 2003, the last episode of season two drew a staggering 38.1 million viewers and a 16.8 in the demo, results that put this year's regular season NFL ratings to shame -- they merit, at least in this atomized age, a victory lap. And because the broadcast business is so in thrall to reboots and resurrections, this all feels less like a fond farewell than a "catch you later."

Setting aside the logistical migraines that come with having to fill roughly 40 hours of airtime next spring, Fox faces the unenviable task of replacing those "Idol" ratings points. With a full-season average of a 2.3 in the dollar demo, "Idol" is Fox's second highest-rated show behind "Empire" (4.7), or third if you count the six-part "X-Files" run (3.2). The law of averages and broadcast's ever-declining live ratings says that any programming Fox orders up to plug the spring Wednesday and Thursday night gaps will almost certainly fail to top that 2.3 for "Idol."

Fox acknowledged that it will cost a significant amount of money to fill the former "Idol" hours. Speaking earlier this year at the Television Critics Association confab, Dana Walden, co-chairman and co-CEO of Fox Television, said that in an effort to fill the "Idol"-shaped void in its spring 2017 schedule, the network has increased its development budget by some 30%.

Even as the inexorable law of TV gravity began dragging "Idol" earthbound (a reentry that was accelerated by the emergence of NBC's "The Voice"), the show managed to hold onto its marquee sponsors for a remarkable span of time. On the heels of Coca-Cola's decision to part ways with "Idol" after 13 seasons, AT&T bowed out of the penultimate run with a dozen years of support under its belt. Meanwhile, original backer Ford remained steadfast, sticking with "Idol" for each of its 15 seasons. Ford was a faithful supporter of the show to the very last, buying six spots in the finale and appearing in a custom vignette that aired shortly before host Ryan Seacrest announced the winner.

Along with Ford, Mr. Seacrest was the constant in the "Idol" experience, holding down the emcee role while creator and chief antagonist Simon Cowell and a gaggle of celebrity judges came and went. Fittingly, it was the longstanding host who alluded to the possibility of a 16th season; as he signed off for the last time, Mr. Seacrest said, "And one more time, and this is so tough -- Good night, America … for now."

Whether Mr. Seacrest was indulging in a bit of sentimental mischief or was calling back an earlier assertion by Mr. Cowell that "Idol" would one day return in a somewhat different format remains to be seen. But like time, TV is a flat circle, and in an era when a 1.1 rating buys you a renewal and every other show is either a reboot, spinoff or a Chicago-centric municipal drama, it would be unwise to bet against such a development.

However things shake out, "Idol" has a secure place in TV history. Setting aside the Carrie Underwoods and Kelly Clarksons and Jennifer Hudsons the show brought to light, the thing was a money-making marvel, and a glimmering showcase for advertisers with deep pockets. One old timer who was around for the "Idol" glory days said the show once pulled in so much money that it effectively defrayed the cost of every other show on Fox's prime time schedule, and while that may be a bit hyperbolic, its sales figures were staggering. While appraisals are a bit too reliant on rate card data and tend to overlook the contributions of Ford, Coke and AT&T, ballpark estimates put the final tally at $8.6 billion over the show's 15-year lifespan.

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