Fox executives: 'This is way too soon'
FOX's "American Idol" Finale For The Farewell Season - Show
Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Fox executives are not holding back about American Idol returning so soon on rival ABC.

During a conference call with reporters Monday, Fox TV chairman Dana Walden criticized Idol producer FremantleMedia for bringing back the show so quickly after Fox’s heavily promoted farewell season just last year.

Walden acknowledged that Fox bid for the show’s return along with ABC and NBC. But Fox wanted to wait longer before bringing the show back — to the year 2020, ideally — and make some major creative changes to freshen the show. FremantleMedia, Walden claims, initially wanted to keep the format and talent unchanged, then agreed to bench the title for a few years, and then eventually decided to rush Idol back as soon as possible for financial reasons.

“They were determined to get this show back on the air as quickly as possible,” Walden said. “We spent about $25 million sending a clear message that it was the farewell season. It felt to us it would be extremely fraudulent to bring the show back quickly, that fans would not appreciate being told one thing and then having the show brought back right away.”

ABC is expected to launch its version next year. Walden detailed the network’s conversations with the producer: “We and Fremantle had very different points of view,” she said. “The last conversation we had with them was about how the ratings had dropped over 70 percent over four years. There was clearly a ratings trend. It was not going in the right direction. The network was losing an enormous amount of money and we had asked them to make trims. And they felt, as is their right, that they didn’t want to take significant trims, they didn’t want to test out a new panel — they felt like it had taken a long time to find the chemistry they had with [Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick]. They ultimately said to us they would rather rest the show after this season rather than make any changes, and that’s when we decided to call it the farewell season.”

Walden said they heard Fremantle reached out to NBC to continue the show. That made a certain kind of sense, she said, as that would have given Idol access to Simon Cowell — who’s exclusive to NBC due to his producing deal on America’s Got Talent. But after Fremantle looped in ABC, it became clear the company wanted to bring back the show early regardless.

“[FremantleMedia parent RTL Group] lost revenue from not having this show on in the U.S. — that’s meaningful when you’re running a public company,” Walden said. “And all of a sudden we were made aware of conversations with ABC to bring the show back in 2018, which, again, would put it off the air for one season. And we again felt like this is way too soon. We tried to engage Fremantle in conversations about bringing it back in 2020 which is when we thought would be an appropriate amount of time off the air, and could give the producers and creators the opportunity to make some changes that could present the next generation of Idol, and they really just weren’t interested in that. They wanted it back on the air and thought ABC was a good opportunity.”

Concluded Walden: “We thought it was too early to bring the show back. All of our research and all of our fan forums supported that notion. We did not see the fan excitement and enthusiasm for the show to come back that Fremantle did. We just had a different set of facts.” Fremantle Media had no immediate comment.

Over the weekend there was more Idol drama when NBC executives had their chance to weigh in on its return. NBC admitted bidding for the program but ultimately felt it wasn’t necessary for their lineup.

“We didn’t need Idol,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt. “We did have conversations with them about Idol. We recognize the franchise is great. … We just decided we have The Voice, [and] a couple of music competition shows that we’re down the road developing that you may see coming to the schedule as early as next summer. We thought we’re going to stick with our hand.”

NBC’s reality chief Paul Telegdy also denied speculation that his network snatched up former Idol luminaries Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson last week for judging roles on The Voice specifically to block ABC from hiring them on Idol. “We’ve been talking to those two for a long time about joining The Voice,” Telegdy said. “We didn’t make the connection between them appearing on the show and ABC’s return of Idol.”

Sources say ABC was interested in hiring Clarkson, and now the network is reportedly going after Katy Perry for a judge spot. ABC has its upfront this week as well, and it will be interesting to see how its network executives — who are typically rather guarded and reserved in their press statements — respond to all this.