In May 2016, Fox’s “American Idol” host, Ryan Seacrest, stood on the stage of the famed reality singing competition. “And one more time — this is so tough,” he said, getting choked up as he looked into the camera. “We say to you from Hollywood: Goodnight, America.”
It was an emotional moment, as dozens of former contestants — many of whom had their lives changed by the show — returned to pay their respects to the groundbreaking television series, which was going off the air forever.
Except . . . now it’s back.
If you’ve missed the myriad commercials, “American Idol” returns to the air Sunday night for its 16th season premiere, this time on ABC. As a Fox executive described it, after the series was canceled (ratings dropped and costs were rising), production company FremantleMedia was “determined to get this show back on the air as quickly as possible.” Fox kicked around the idea of a revival but decided it would be “extremely fraudulent” to bring back the series so soon after it was marketed as the “farewell season.” So producers took the show to ABC.
“Idol” might be on a new network, but not much else has changed — there are still three celebrity judges. Aspiring singers audition to go to Hollywood, and then on to the live rounds, where America will decide their fate. It’s the same production company. Seacrest is still the host.
However, months before its premiere, “Idol” had, shall we say, a rocky start. Last spring, producers were reportedly trying to woo “Idol” first-season winner Kelly Clarkson to be a judge, but then NBC’s “The Voice” offered her so much money that she jumped ship. According to journalist/author Richard Rushfield’s the Ankler newsletter, producers panicked and threw $25 million at pop star Katy Perry, as they felt pressure to secure a big-name judge before they presented the show to advertisers at the May upfronts. And this was right before Perry, the most-followed person on Twitter, embarked on a rather sad press tour for her latest album, “Witness,” which was torn apart by critics.
But Perry’s payday also became an issue for Seacrest. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that producers were eager for Seacrest to return as the host, but he balked when Perry’s massive salary resulted in a much lower offer for his. THR reported that it took months to sort out, as his team wanted him to walk away, but ABC stepped in and managed to smooth things over. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, Seacrest’s salary is $12 million; judge Luke Bryan will be paid the same amount, while Lionel Richie’s salary is $10 million.
Over the past couple of weeks, Seacrest has been the center of his own controversy. His former stylist accused him of sexually harassing and abusing her after she started working at E! in 2007; the network cleared him after an investigation, and Seacrest has vehemently denied the accusations. However, a cloud hung over him as he was on the red carpet leading E!’s Oscars coverage, as the pre-show tried to essentially pretend sexual harassment didn’t exist. So while Disney-ABC appears to be standing behind Seacrest — he still has his day job on “Live with Kelly and Ryan” — it doesn’t help to have those headlines around the show’s debut.
Of course, none of this will matter if viewers tune in — the network and producers are hopeful, given that “Idol” was still pulling in 9 million viewers, a very respectable number these days on network TV.
“The view that ‘Idol’ was failing is only valid if you compare it to its peak,” FremantleMedia chief executive Cecile Frot-Coutaz told the Wall Street Journal. In its heyday, around 2006, “Idol” earned an average of 30.6 million viewers per week.
So far, reviews of screeners provided by ABC have not been glowing: “‘American Idol’ is back and it’s . . . fine, whatever,” wrote USA Today, while the Daily Beast went with “Not Even Katy Perry Can Bring ‘American Idol’ Back From the Dead.” But clearly, the network is banking on the nostalgia factor to erase the negative press. We will see if nostalgia still counts for something that has been gone for less than two years.