'American Idol' finale: what live hit shows do for the networks, and viewers

Live song-and-dance competition shows like 'American Idol,' which is broadcasting its season finale Wednesday night, are getting a bit long in the tooth, but they can still deliver impressive ratings.

Mario Anzouni/Reuters
Finalists Jena Irene and Caleb Johnson perform a medley on stage during the American Idol XIII 2014 Finale in Los Angeles, California May 21, 2014.

As “American Idol” airs its season finale Wednesday night, a two-hour results special, it’s easy to see why broadcast networks love these live, song-and-dance competition shows. In an era of exploding competition for entertainment viewers, “Idol” and its ilk – think “The Voice,” which also wrapped this week, and “Dancing With the Stars” (DWTS) – can still assemble impressive ratings.

At the same time, some of these shows are getting long in the tooth, and ratings are dropping from their heyday. Fox has announced that “Idol” will end after next season, and overall ratings for “DWTS” and “Voice” are down from just last year. They are significantly down from their debuts.

Nonetheless, the power these live events shows have demonstrated to counter the practice of time-shifting on DVRs is leading broadcasters to mine the territory further.

“The fact that so many Americans now time-shift their favorite programs and watch across multiple screens has created an imperative for networks to come up with programming that has to be watched in real time,” says David Gudelunas, associate professor of communication at Fairfield University in Conn, via e-mail.

Since the big networks can’t broadcast sporting events all day everyday, he notes, “variety competitions that are quickly ruined by social media spoilers are a cheap and effective strategy to get audiences to tune in to traditional television in traditional ways.”

For instance, NBC had a modest success with a live presentation of The Sound of Music and has announced plans for two more live musicals, including Peter Pan.

All of this has led some media experts to point out with some irony that today’s broadcasters are simply relearning lessons from the earliest days of the medium – while leveraging them with the benefit of new technology.

“The medium is coming full circle realizing what television has always done better than any other medium, namely allow people to experience it as it happens,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

Of course, he points out, in the first decades of TV, game and variety shows were staples of the emerging medium for the simple reason that film was too expensive. “All these genres, the quiz show, the talent competitions, were all watched in real time,” he says, not because audiences chose to but because there was no other option.

Now that viewers have  hundreds of choices, the emergence of social media such as Twitter and texting, which allow millions of viewers to join in a single viewing experience, has reinvigorated the live television event, says Professor Thompson.

“Sports has always been live because people wouldn’t watch it any other way, but we kind of forgot this element of what TV does well for a while,” he says, adding, “we are now rediscovering it as social media allows people to connect and become part of a large group all sharing an experience at once.”

The traditional broadcasting model depends on ads that cannot be skipped in real time. Advertisers clearly understand the value of live programming to force viewers to stay put through their spots.

Even with falling ratings, ad rates for “Idol” are second only to football. According to Advertising Age, a 30-second spot in Fox's "Idol" cost an average of $355,946. The same Ad Age survey showed NBC's "The Voice" in the top 10, with a 30-second spot selling to the tune of $294,038 on average, compared with $239,866 last year, a 22.6 percent increase.

Ratings are key to keeping these ad rates up, of course, points out communications professor Jeffrey McCall, from DePauw University in Green Castle, Ind. Awards shows, sports, and entertainment competitions are DVR-proof and give instant ratings, he notes.

The problem is that networks just can't find enough viewable events to cover prime time all week, he says, adding that they will have to keep crime dramas and sitcoms in the mix.

“The change in the viewing landscape won't be an overhaul, but a measured effort to get people to do appointment viewing,” he says via e-mail.

In this day and age, notes Professor McCall, especially for younger viewers, appointment viewing is not a priority.

“Their lifestyles are helter-skelter and often unplanned. Work schedules are not 9-to-5 any more. In this regard, networks are fighting an uphill battle to get young viewers to sit still at times the network decides,” he says.

Still, there is a certain cultural capital for viewers who watch programs live, says McCall. “They can immediately engage the social networks with reacts to the shows and they are ready for water cooler conversations about the shows. And, if you watch a program live instead of recording it, you don't have to worry about somebody spoiling it for you,” he adds.

Live programs are useful, but they also undermine the most important functions of a network, namely to keep viewers on the same channel so they will watch other shows and hopefully, stay put for local affiliate programming, says former CBS executive Jim McKairnes. Live shows don't repeat, he says, and they don't necessarily lead viewers to watch the rest of a network's offerings  “which hit shows are placed on a schedule to do,” he says via e-mail. 

What live programming does is appeal to viewer’s most basic needs, says Len Shyles, communications professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

“It is one of the ontological irreplaceables of the broadcast world, to enable viewers to extend their reach in sight and sound as to what is happening right now,” he says via e-mail. On the spot news coverage is the same type of thing, he points out, with features such as storm warnings to keep populaces safe from harm. “There is no substitute for that,” he adds.

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