Its End Now at Hand, 'American Idol' Is Not Going Quietly

Season 15 Premiere Puts Up Strong Numbers

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Kanye West drops in on 'American Idol.'
Kanye West drops in on 'American Idol.' Credit: Fox

"American Idol" on Wednesday night began its three-month farewell tour, and while the show that generated nearly $8.5 billion in ad sales revenue over the course of 14 seasons is no longer a cash cow, the ratings are still worthy of an aging diva.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the two-hour premiere of "Idol's" 15th and final season averaged a hearty 11 million viewers and a 3.0 among adults 18 to 49, which translates to 3.8 million members of Fox's targeted demographic group. The guaranteed rating slipped just 6% versus the 3.2 demo "Idol" scared up a year ago, and now stands as the season's No. 6 premiere rating among all returning broadcast entertainment shows. (Fox's "Empire" is tops with the 6.7 it notched on Sept. 23.)

The "Idol" premiere featured a surprise appearance (and subsequent audition) from rap superstar Kanye West.

Advertisers who bought time in the "Idol" premiere got themselves a hell of a bargain, as the rates set in the upfront were significantly discounted from the previous season. According to media buyers, the going rate for a 30-second sliver of ad inventory in the Wednesday night edition of "Idol" now fetches around $160,000 a pop, a 40% savings compared to season 14 ($265,000). The average unit cost for the Thursday night installment is just shy of $140,000 per spot.

At once one of the most celebrated and misunderstood TV powerhouses of the multi-channel era, "Idol" was an absolute juggernaut for Fox, scaring up hundreds of millions in ad sales dollars each year while serving as a rare magnet for cross-generational viewers. And the revenue wasn't limited to mere spots and dots. In signing Coca-Cola as an all-in sponsor back in 2002 for a relative pittance ($10 million for the first season), Fox and the soft drink giant embarked on a 13-year journey that helped redefine product placement. The Coke-"Idol" pact was presaged two years earlier when CBS lined up GM, Budweiser and Reebok to support what would be its unscripted game changer, "Survivor."

And while "Idol" made so much money that one former executive said it "literally paid for everything" on the Fox airwaves, many in the TV press would only focus on the show's declining ratings. But here's the thing: "Idol" peaked in season five. That year, the musical competition series averaged a now almost-unthinkable 30.5 million viewers and a 12.5 in the 18-to-49 demo. The following year it slipped to an 11.9 [!], and the knives came out.

For all that, "Idol" was TV's most-watched, highest-rated show for eight seasons running, a feat that is unlikely to be matched by any non-NFL program. It not only made stars (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, etc.), it became engrained in the American zeitgeist. And while there will be much attention paid to the ratings as the season progresses -- last year's "Idol" cycle settled out to a series-low 9.46 million viewers and a 2.3 in the demo -- the impact the show had on TV and the advertising landscape should not be forgotten.

"Idol" auditions resume tonight at 8 p.m.

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