April 30, 2006
How a Hit Almost Failed Its Own Audition
By BILL CARTER
Network television programmers face a challenging job, though not a complicated one: they need to find hits. That's why they spend millions to find and hire talented writers, actors and producers. In many cases they would be wiser to invest in a catcher's mitt, because really big hits, ones that can transform the fates of networks — and of network executives — tend to fall from the sky. Here is the story of how "American Idol," the biggest hit on television, hovered over every network in 2001, waiting for one of them to grab it. This article is adapted from "Desperate Networks" by Bill Carter, a reporter for The New York Times. Doubleday will publish the book on Tuesday.
SIMON COWELL sat at a meeting in Los Angeles with executives from someplace he had never heard of, something called the UPN network. Mr. Cowell, a British music executive, had never pitched a television show in America before — and the way things were going, he felt as though he never would again.
The UPN executives who sat across the table from Mr. Cowell at that meeting in April 2001 clearly had no clue who this guy was, and, apparently, even less interest in finding out. Maybe they knew his business partner, Simon Fuller, from his leadership of the Spice Girls. Surely, they had heard of the Spice Girls. But, then again, as Mr. Cowell checked those blank, uninterested faces, maybe not.
No matter. Mr. Cowell had enormous faith in the idea that he and Mr. Fuller had for a music-based television show. Mr. Fuller was the most successful manager of music acts in Britain and he, Mr. Cowell, was the most successful artist and repertoire man — that is, music label talent manager — currently working there. They both knew how to launch new singing artists, and now they had an idea for a show that would allow them to utilize their talents on camera.
Despite the wall he sensed going up at the UPN meeting, Mr. Cowell, never cowed, simply plowed ahead with his pitch. "What this is really about is the American dream," Mr. Cowell told the American executives in his smooth British tones. He laid out the format for the show that he and Mr. Fuller were calling "Pop Idol" in Britain, describing how exciting this show would surely be. When Mr. Cowell wrapped up his comments, the room went quiet — stone silent.
At the opposite end of the table, a young woman executive, whom Mr. Cowell had identified in his head as the "lippy second-in-command," seemed to be calculating whether or not this truly was the end of the presentation.
"And what exactly do you think we're supposed to be doing for you?" the woman said, dismissively.
"Well, actually, sweetheart," Mr. Cowell replied, applying just a dash of acid, "it's more a question of what I could be doing for you."
Again a terrible silence fell. Then the woman piped up: "Well, we'll get back to you."
Mr. Cowell said he had heard that line before — too many times for it to bother him during his sojourn in the United States trying to spark some American interest in this hot idea. He and Mr. Fuller and a third partner, yet another Simon — Simon Jones, an executive with Thames Television — had paid calls to the broadcast networks, to MTV and to other cable networks. Every one of them had a free shot that April at landing the show that the three Simons were putting on offer. No one showed the least interest, and many of the network executives offered shoulders so cold that Mr. Cowell could have chilled his wine on them. Uniformly, they had been, Mr. Cowell was convinced, the worst, most appalling meetings of his life.
The contrast with how "Pop Idol" had been sold in Britain could not have been sharper. Mr. Cowell and Mr. Fuller met with representatives of the British network ITV, spent what Mr. Cowell estimated was no more than 30 seconds describing the idea, and they had a deal. But, of course, the two Simons had enormous reputations in the British entertainment world, and they were entering a market that had already embraced music-oriented reality shows.
In Britain, "Pop Stars," a show that was originally developed in Australia and traced the formation of a singing group, had engrossed the nation. Another music show, "Fame Academy," had also done extremely well.
Mr. Cowell had been invited to be a judge on the first edition of "Pop Stars," and, at first, had accepted. But he quickly had misgivings about being a person who ran a music label going on television to demonstrate how to put together a group. Mr. Cowell thought it was "like a magician showing how you saw somebody in half." He bowed out.
When Mr. Cowell got a first glimpse of "Pop Stars," however, he knew he had made a mistake. The show looked like a piping hot hit to him — though he had an instant insight. To him, the attractive part of "Pop Stars" was the round of auditions to select the band members. He thought that, as constituted, "Pop Stars" had no ending. With Mr. Fuller he conceived a show built around seasonlong tryouts with the winner announced at the end.
What Mr. Cowell told ITV was this: "It will have all the fun of 'Pop Stars,' but we can do it better. We can do it a lot harsher than on 'Pop Stars,' and the public will vote and choose the winner. And we won't be relying on the music to make the show successful: it will be a soap opera."
Mr. Cowell also volunteered himself as a judge, knowing that he had the precise expertise called for in selecting a singing star. Mr. Fuller and his company, 19 Entertainment, owned the show along with Fremantle Media, a big European production company. Mr. Cowell took no ownership stake, but he did get royalty rights for his label, Syco Records, a part of the BMG Music Group, on every recording released by an "Idol" performer worldwide. That was the essence of the show's appeal for Mr. Cowell.
All he was concerned with was that the right person would win, so that he would get access to a good artist. If the show was a hit, so much the better; Mr. Cowell's new artist was more likely to sell a lot of records that way.
When Mr. Cowell started shooting "Pop Idol" in England in the summer of 2001, the production plan called for four judges to sit in an audition room while contestants trooped in, one by one. The judges would discuss each singer after he or she left the room. Nothing more specific was spelled out.
The first auditions took place in Manchester. But by the time five or six singers had walked through, sung and then had their performances rehashed by the judges after they had left the room, Mr. Cowell was almost crawling up the walls.
"I'm dying in here," he told the producers. "This is not like a real-life audition." He turned to one of the other judges, the veteran British pop producer Pete Waterman, and said: "We have to actually tell the performers to their faces what we thought. We've just got to tell these boys and girls the truth. They're rubbish."
Mr. Cowell had invited Mr. Waterman to work as a judge, expecting him to be what Mr. Cowell described as the "nasty" one. But Mr. Waterman got more emotional on the show than Mr. Cowell expected. (It was published in the British press that he actually teared up at one performance). Mr. Cowell, meanwhile, acted no differently on the air than he did at real auditions — he was cold and distant. And his comments reflected that.
As the show took off after its premiere that October, the British press concentrated on Mr. Cowell and his barbed comments. He was the nasty one, the "mouthy" one. The show quickly began to revolve around Mr. Cowell and his withering appraisals of the wretched talent being brought before him.
"Pop Idol" was the hit of the year in Britain. The two finalists both released albums after the show concluded and sold millions of copies. Mr. Fuller had two new hit artists to manage; Mr. Cowell's label had two huge-selling albums. Their collaboration was a ringing success — and they were just getting started.
Alix Hartley, a British-born talent agent with an expertise in music, who worked for the Creative Artists Agency, the heavyweight Hollywood talent agency, was a natural to represent Mr. Fuller in the challenge of going back to the networks in the fall of 2001 and finding "Pop Idol" a home on American television.
Given how both "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor" — both conceived by British producers — had emerged as hits on American television in the summer months, C.A.A.'s strategy was to pitch "Pop Idol" around as a perfect new reality programming vehicle for the summer of 2002. It was light, entertaining and not very expensive to produce. As an added advantage, having started a 15-week British run in October, it would have fully executed weekly editions on tape to serve as the template for the American version.
ANDREA WONG, who ran the reality-programming department for ABC, was an ideal target for the C.A.A. pitch. She was aggressively seeking reality programs and had been closely watching the British market in the wake of her network's failure to secure "Survivor" when it had twice been in ABC's clutches.
But C.A.A. and the producers of "Pop Idol" ran into a problem that "Survivor" never had to face. Music had already failed in the United States in reality formats on two networks, one being ABC.
That network tried a show in 2000 called "Making the Band," about assembling a boy-band singing group. Though it had a small following, mostly among pubescent girls, the show simply could not cross over into a wider audience. The music format was blamed. Music had become just too stratified, the argument went, to ever build a wide-enough appeal in the United States to succeed on the scale that an American network television show required.
The WB network, which was mainly the network of pubescent girls, tried a similar format the next season with a show that the network called "Pop Stars," a format derived from the Australian and British models of the same name — only with an-all girl group. It, too, found only a niche audience.
Ms. Wong knew all of that when C.A.A. came in touting "Pop Idol." She passed. C.A.A. next met with NBC's reality executives. They passed. The agency never set up a formal meeting with CBS's reality division, feeling as though an initial phone call to CBS had fallen utterly flat.
That left Fox. The British producers had gotten nowhere in the spring when they tried to interest Fox's reality division, headed by Mike Darnell, in "Pop Idol." But C.A.A. made a new effort anyway. This time Ms. Hartley of C.A.A. and Mr. Fuller — without Mr. Cowell this time — went in to see Mr. Darnell himself.
Mr. Fuller pitched his idea with fervent passion, and that impressed Mr. Darnell. He really liked the notion that the format would essentially be all audition, complete with a lot of really woeful early performances. Mr. Darnell had never liked the band-making shows once they got past the auditions. Here was a format in which the auditions, replete with people making cringe-inducing fools of themselves, would rule.
Mr. Darnell, thinking of summer budgets at Fox, wanted to know if the show had sponsorship attached. Ms. Hartley told him that C.A.A. was working on that very angle. Mr. Darnell told Ms. Hartley and Mr. Fuller that they should bring up the idea with Sandy Grushow, the head of entertainment for Fox, and his chief lieutenant, Gail Berman.
When Mr. Grushow and Ms. Berman heard the pitch, both had the same reaction: tepid. A talent contest did not sound like inspiring television in the 21st century — or like a breakout hit, for which Fox had an increasingly searing need at that point.
But both executives knew that the network could also use something that might pass for fresh summer programming. The problem was, Fox was out of money. The program budget for the year was exhausted, bone dry.
Mr. Grushow told the C.A.A. representatives that Fox was simply not going to pay a license fee for this program — if it was going to get on the air, it would have to be as a fully sponsored broadcast. "We don't know much about this show," Mr. Grushow told them. "But if we can get it for nothing, it's sort of a no-brainer."
C.A.A. indicated that, of course, it could line up sponsors. Fox said: Come back to us when you do.
By this point, early in winter, "Pop Idol" had become the talk of Britain. Fox had made no effort to secure the show, so C.A.A. went back to Ms. Wong from ABC, armed with those mighty ratings from the British run. She asked to see a tape of the British show. That was encouraging. A tape was delivered. Ms. Wong watched it — and passed again.
The impasse with Fox continued. C.A.A. heard nothing from Mr. Darnell. Ms. Berman and Mr. Grushow continued to press for a fully sponsored show; nothing was happening, despite the fabulous success in Britain.
But even as talks with Fox dragged on, C.A.A. was trying to exploit a connection that some at the agency believed might play out to their advantage. Back in October, several C.A.A. executives had met with Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert Murdoch, the founder and chief executive of the News Corporation, which owns Fox. The meeting took place at Mipcom, the international television programming festival in Cannes, France. A blossoming relationship took hold there.
With the talks about "Idol" stalled in Los Angeles, the C.A.A. representatives at one point mentioned the show in a conversation with Ms. Murdoch, who ran the News Corporation's most important television operation in England, the BSkyB satellite channel. She, of course, was witnessing the phenomenon of "Pop Idol" firsthand, on her home TV set.
Fortunately for C.A.A., Ms. Murdoch flat-out loved the show. Hearing that her father's American network had yet to act on making a deal for the United States rights, she decided to give the process a helpful nudge. She called her father and told him how much she loved "Pop Idol" and how big the show was becoming in England. She urged him to buy the rights for Fox.
Mr. Murdoch put in a call the next day to Peter Chernin, his No. 2 at the News Corporation and the top decision-maker on all the biggest moves made by the Fox network. "What's going on with this show 'Pop Idol,' Peter?" Mr. Murdoch asked Mr. Chernin. "It's a big hit in England. I spoke to Liz and she says it's great."
Mr. Chernin was familiar enough with the situation to report that Fox's network people had been talking about it with the agency, discussing potential advertising backers. "We're still looking at it," he said.
Mr. Murdoch shot back: "Don't look at it. Buy it! Right now."
With those marching orders ringing in his ears, Mr. Chernin followed up quickly, calling Mr. Grushow and Ms. Berman. He asked them the status of "Pop Idol." They told him that they were still waiting for the advertiser sponsorships to come through.
"Just close the deal," Mr. Chernin said. He explained the call from Mr. Murdoch.
Mr. Grushow said, "We'll get it closed today."
The actual order for the series suddenly changed as well. Instead of an eight-episode summer order, Fox began asking C.A.A. for the rights to broadcast 15 episodes — the same duration as the show in Britain. The C.A.A. agents concluded that one of the Murdochs, or maybe both, had insisted that the show be done exactly as it was in England.
That did not mean that Fox would import the British hosts and judges. Fox fully expected to hire figures from the American music industry for those jobs. But after the deal was concluded, and Mr. Grushow finally was able to watch a tape of the British version, he told Ms. Berman that he was taken by the nastily charismatic figure on the British judging panel. "I think as part of the deal, we should insist on bringing this guy over as a judge," he said. At that point, he could not remember Simon Cowell's name.
"Pop Idol" made Mr. Cowell one of the most talked-about cultural figures in Britain in the winter of 2002. He was a tabloid newspaper's dream: seen by millions every week on television, saying something outrageously quotable ("You're a disaster"), doing something unconscionably cruel (several young women left the auditions convulsed in tears after hearing his corrosive assessments of their talents) and tirelessly promoting his program (by doing every sort of interview in print and on television and radio).
Mr. Cowell said he was pleased when he heard that the show had finally sold in the United States but mildly shocked when he learned that Fox was requesting that he come along to be a judge on the American version. He had not planned on turning himself into an international television star; he said he wanted only to make the show a hit for the benefit of his record label.
At first he had doubts about whether he knew enough about American music to judge American singers. He was also concerned because of the way American television executives functioned during those hideous meetings in the spring. He expected that some genius at the American network was bound to try to water down the show, and especially his honestly acerbic comments. He would have no interest in a sweetened version of "Pop Idol."
Then Kevin Warwick, one of the producers of the British show, called. "Look, Simon, we're going over to produce the show in America," he said. "I will look after your back again. You won't have to compromise what you do. You can be yourself."
Mr. Cowell asked, "So I can really be the same as I was in England?"
Mr. Warwick assured him that he could.
A few weeks later, Mr. Cowell arrived in Los Angeles for his first round of meetings with Fox and the American producer, Brian Gadinsky. At first they considered rechristening it "America's Idol." Mr. Darnell thought that made it sound as if it might be about a New York fireman, so he suggested "American Idol." (Nobody wanted "pop" in the title because nobody in the music business in the United States ever used the word "pop" anymore — with the exception of Michael Jackson — and because "Pop Stars" had been a failure for the WB network.)
Mr. Murdoch, as he often did, sat in on a meeting that winter to go over the full development slate for the network. When it came time to talk about reality programs, he jumped right in and asked about "Idol." Mr. Darnell was ready with his plans for how to execute the format. "Here's what I want to do," he began.
Mr. Murdoch cut him off. "You don't change a thing," he said, according to one of the Fox executives in the meeting. "This show works in England. And you're going to make the same show they made in England. The problem with you Hollywood people is you always want to change things and you ruin everything."
Mr. Murdoch had not likely studied the structure of the British format to determine that it was flawless. But he did know that the network would not have "Idol" had he not insisted on it.
No one would think of challenging Mr. Murdoch's views, but some Fox executives really did believe that the British format had some obvious flaws. For one thing, it had two hosts, which surely made the show seem unnecessarily cluttered. And the four-judge panel invited trouble because it was an even number. If the judges split two to two, the format called for Mr. Cowell to break the tie, but that seemed actually to reduce the number of judges to one.
FOX had not signed Mr. Cowell to a contract — at his insistence. He told the Fox executives, "I'll do one season and see how it goes." That was music to the ears of the Fox group, still worried about the expense of this little summer show that had suddenly grown to 15 episodes. Nobody really knew how the show would do. Mr. Cowell was still emphasizing that he was in it not for the fame or the salary, but for the money that would come from having yet another hot artist for his label. He did not even acquire an American agent — not right away.
The whole Fox network operation impressed Mr. Cowell because there was never a hint of an attempt to censor him or to turn him into a sweetheart of a guy. Fox seemed to him to be bravely acknowledging that the American audience, like the British audience, was ready to rebel against what Mr. Cowell called "the terrible political correctness that invaded America and England."
To Mr. Cowell, it looked as if Fox was going to allow the audience to see something that wasn't sanitized for a change. They would embrace the fact that with Mr. Cowell doing the talking, "lots of useless people were going to be told that they were useless."
The selection of the other judges went relatively smoothly. When Fox brought in Randy Jackson, the onetime bass player for the band Journey who became a successful producer and talent manager for Columbia Records, Mr. Cowell liked him immediately. When Mr. Cowell heard that Paula Abdul would also be named a judge, Mr. Cowell thought that she was also a solid choice, given her long music career in the United States.
Mr. Cowell did not meet Ms. Abdul until the first round of auditions for the show, which took place in Los Angeles. At that point, no one at Fox had ever even seen the three judges interact with one another. A fourth judge had still not been chosen, but given how much time the auditions were expected to take, the idea was to start with three and, if a fourth was found, to add him or her later.
Almost nothing was said among the judges before the first auditions rolled. Ms. Abdul seemed quiet and polite to Mr. Cowell; Mr. Jackson was affable. The first singers came in. They had already been screened, of course, and included a healthy mixture of respectable warblers and tone-deaf screechers.
This was teed up for Mr. Cowell, who unleashed his lash on every offending wannabe. He told one girl to get a lawyer and to sue her vocal coach. Others he labeled with such terms as wretched, horrid, pathetic. When one kid said he would someday regret all the hearts he was breaking, Mr. Cowell dismissed him with the line, "You're a loser."
The chorus of put-downs was clearly not what Ms. Abdul had been expecting. Several times during the first day, she looked over at Mr. Cowell in shock. He took notice. Apparently, Ms. Abdul had been anticipating the kind of audition that American kids usually got: "Oh, you were great! Thanks, we'll let you know." Instead, they were leaving either angry or in tears.
After the taping, Mr. Cowell cornered the producers. "I think Paula is going to walk," he told them. "I don't think she's going to want to continue to do the show." Ms. Abdul did not quit, but the relationship between her and Mr. Cowell was instantly tense. Their fractiousness on the air in those early shows was definitely not a put-on, Mr. Cowell said.
As the auditions moved on to a second round, Mr. Cowell remained concerned about how Ms. Abdul was going react to his give-no-quarter style. Just before the taping was to begin, one of the newer American producers came up to him with a long sheet of paper in his hand. He offered it to Mr. Cowell.
"What is it?" Mr. Cowell said.
"We've written a script for you today," the producer said.
"What do you mean a script?" the befuddled Mr. Cowell said.
"We've written put-downs for you, more put-downs," the producer said.
"What do you mean, you've written me put-downs?"
"Well, you're scripted, aren't you?" the producer said.
"No, I'm not scripted," Mr. Cowell said, now more appalled than surprised.
"Well, do you want these?" the producer said, offering the list again.
"No!" Mr. Cowell said, utterly indignant at the insult. Apparently these people were accustomed to everything being scripted.
AFTER the auditions, Mr. Cowell flew home to London. He was confident that the show would make great television. He had no idea if it would break through and be a hit, because he felt that he could not predict American tastes the way he could British tastes. But he was more than satisfied with how the auditions had gone. He would return for the live-performance shows just after the first few editions of "American Idol" went on the air.
Mr. Cowell was back at his day job in London on June 11, 2002. He had music artists and selling records on his mind, not "American Idol." The fact that the show had gone on the air the previous night in the United States had slipped his mind.
About 3 p.m. London time, he got a call. It was one of the "Idol" staff members in Los Angeles. When Mr. Cowell picked up the phone, the guy on the other end was so excited that he could hardly get the words out.
"Simon, this is amazing; it's a hit," the voice said.
Confused for a moment, Mr. Cowell said: "What are you talking about? What's a hit?"
" 'American Idol.' We opened last night, and the ratings are going through the roof."
"Fantastic!" Mr. Cowell said. "I'm really pleased."
The report was only a slight exaggeration. "Idol" was the most-watched show on American television, with 10 million viewers, on the Tuesday when it had its premiere; the next night it eclipsed 11 million. Both ranked even better among the young viewers whom Fox coveted, beating all competition in the 18-to-49 age group and, even better, finished first and second for the week among viewers 18 to 34.
Mr. Cowell immediately embarked on a round of publicity, doing 50 interviews with American radio stations in one day alone. Of course, the phenomenon that would soon dominate American pop culture — and ignite Fox on a spectacular ratings run toward real competitive balance with the other three networks — was only beginning. Within a matter of weeks, Fox was making arrangements to bring "Idol" back in the regular season, starting the following January.
"American Idol" would not be only the "game changer" that Mr. Grushow and Fox had been searching for.
It would be a business-changer for all of network television.