From Idle to Idol: How American Idol’s Comeback is Inspiring Marketers, Creators, and Business Leaders

Let’s face it: if you were surprised to hear that American Idol Season 13 premiered last week, you weren’t alone. Though it easily ranked as the evening’s most watched program, Idol isn’t the ratings juggernaut it once was. As a television ratings and box office junkie, I’ve followed Idol through its “death star” days when it beat the Olympics to its least watched finale last season.


Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when I saw headlines announcing that Season 13’s premiere set a series low at 15 million viewers. Yikes. What I didn’t expect, however, were the astonishing Live +3 Ratings, which calculate the viewers who watch a program through TiVo, DVR, or another recording device within 3 days of the original airing.

What was so astonishing? The Live +3 Ratings for Idol show a 15 percent gain in the 18-49 adults demographic and 32 percent more viewers from last year’s finale. Simply put: word of mouth was so strong following the Season 13 premiere that Idol gained an additional third of its original viewership, making it the most watched non-sports program in 2014.

There are two primary questions this raises:

  1. What did American Idol do to achieve such a notable ratings comeback?
  2. What does this mean for marketers, content creators, and business leaders?

For Idol, Old is the New New

Ever since the original trio of Randy, Paula, and Simon left the judges table, American Idol has experienced something of a free fall. Year after year, we’d tune in for changes that promised a fresher show. But new contestants, new judges, new mentors, new rules, and a new format pushed viewers away. Idol was stuck in quicksand, and the more producers struggled to improve the show, the deeper it sank.

Before Season 13 began, producers promised something new: a return to the old Idol. Viewer surveys following last season revealed that overstuffed results shows, drawn out middle rounds, and drama between judges Maria Carey and Nicki Minaj hurt the show. Idol producers listened to viewers and implemented changes that bring the show back to its roots. These changes include, but are not limited to:

  • Three judges – in the backseat. In recent seasons, fighting between the judges has overshadowed the contestants. “The focus should be in the front,” says Season 13 judge Keith Urban, promising a likeable panel that takes a secondary role in the show. Gone are the days of a crowded 4-judge panel.
  • Paula Abdul. No, Paula isn’t actually back. Rather, her friendly, nurturing spirit that helped create a family-friendly show is brought to the screen. Producers promise a warm and fuzzy Idol that will bring families together in front of the television once again, resulting in bigger ratings.
  • Shorter results shows. The original results shows were just 30 minutes long. As Idol grew, however, FOX wanted to capitalize on the large audience, expanding shows to an hour and sometimes an hour and a half in length just to reveal which contestant was headed home. Prior to Season 13, FOX announced a return to 30 minutes results shows, eliminating needless filler.


But that’s just beginning. Now that the Idol has returned to the original spirit that made it so likeable, a flurry of other changes will freshen the show.

  • Per Blankens and Trish Kinane are two producers replacing long-time Idol director Nigel Lythgoe. Blankens and Kinane are responsible for Swedish Idol’s European comeback.
  • More current songs on the repertoire will attract a younger audience. Gone are Idol’s outdated 70’s Songs theme nights.
  • A new “Rush Week” shortens the notoriously slow middle rounds. Instead of beginning the live shows in early March, the competition will reach full swing in February.
  • Gimmicky sob stories and hilariously bad auditions have been eliminated. Sure, there will be laughs and heartstrings pulled during the audition episodes, but they will feel more authentic than over the top.
  • A Hunger Games inspired “Chamber” will greet contestants before they audition before the judges. The Chamber contains a hidden camera to catch the contestant’s authentic and unfiltered moments.

Do You Really Know Your Audience?

While knowing your audience might seem like Business and Marketing 101, forgetting your target demographic is a pitfall that many brands fall into, including American Idol. Changes in past Idol seasons focused on creating a provocative, edgier show to keep up with X-Factor and The Voice, turning off viewers that fell in love with the show’s family friendly atmosphere.

When the competition does something new, it’s time to amplify what makes your brand unique, not try to outdo the competition. There’s no better way to do this than listening to your audience, honoring your roots, and remembering your target demographic.


Understanding the Evolution of Content

While competitors X-Factor and The Voice invested in an aggressive social media strategy to market their content, American Idol tried to keep its footage exclusively on television. Though this seemed like a good idea on paper, Idol fell behind the changing media landscape. In Season 13, for the first time ever, Idol is posting recaps and exclusive content on its YouTube channel and website immediately after the episode airs. The official Idol Twitter account posts live tweets in sync with the televised content, harnessing the power of dual screen engagement.

Similar to Idol, businesses and brands must develop a content strategy to remain current in today’s competitive market or they’ll fall behind the competition. It’s not necessarily the content itself that changes. Rather, it’s the medium and manner in which content is presented. By trying to keep content exclusively broadcast on television, Idol eventually hurt itself. Is your brand being smart about social media and content marketing?

What Idol is Teaching Business Leaders and Marketers

After 5 consecutive seasons of ratings declines, American Idol’s magic was firing on all cylinders during the Season 13 premiere. Finally, everything came together. Genuine judges, likeable talent, and a focus on finding a superstar brought back the spirit that made Idol a powerhouse in the first place – and ratings are beginning to show it.

There’s a reason your business is unique. Even if you stray from your roots, there’s always a route back home. American Idol made a comeback by:

  • Remembering its target demographic. Is your brand keeping its eye on the prize?
  • Adapting to today’s social landscape. Are you invested in a content strategy for you and your clients?
  • Hiring new producers to give the show a fresh feel. Are you insourcing to get outside expertise with the commitment of an in-house team?

Update: The latest edition of American Idol is up 3 percent to last Thursday’s episode. The comeback continues…

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Daniel Chioco is a writer living in Nashville, TN. He earned his Commercial Music degree at Belmont University, where he also studied creative writing and wrote for the student newspaper. When he isn't creating content, Daniel works as an actor and films YouTube videos. He is also a freelance musician and is authoring his first fantasy novel.

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