If FOX is looking a bit lighter on its feet for the 2014-2015 season, that's probably because the network is dedicating a lot less programming time to singing competitions.
The roughly 39 hours of "X Factor" programming that have glutted FOX's schedule the past three years with variable success are now entirely gone, making room for both more reality -- Two weekly hours of "Utopia" are on the fall schedule -- but also more scripted programming.
And at midseason, while "American Idol" is slated to return for a 14th season, the colossus that towered atop the ratings heap for the better part of a decade will also be looking leaner in 2015.
Speaking with reporters on Monday (May 12) morning in advance of the network's upfront presentation to advertisers, FOX Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly revealed that "American Idol" will air only 37 hours next spring, at least as of now.
For those of us who recap the frequently bloated competition, that still sounds like a lot, but Reilly noted that "Idol" has taken up 50+ hours of spring programming in recent years.
I'll just stop now and pause the 12 years I've been recapping "American Idol" and accept the possibility that I may have spent a full month of my life live-bogging a singing competition.
"I think you'll see a two-night format initially, at least during the audition phase, but I think it's quite likely -- and we have not locked into it exactly -- but I think it's quite likely that it'll be a two-hour show on one night through most of its run," Reilly teased.
The uncertainty about the exact format of the upcoming "Idol" season is at least part of why FOX deviated from its normal upfronts ritual of announcing both a September 2014 schedule and then a revised January schedule (a schedule that has traditionally been heavily tinkered with as the year progressed). This year, FOX only announced a fall slate.
It's no surprise that FOX brought "Idol" back and it's also no surprise that the show is being trimmed for its next installment. While FOX can't quibble with two programming hours with 8+ million viewers and a 1.8-ish rating among adults 18-49, the network also can't count on "Idol" to float its entire spring (or its entire season) like it did through much of the '00s.
Asked about whether he expects "Idol" to "turn it around" next season, Reilly made no bones about the show's current state.
"I don't think it's a matter of turning around," Reilly admits. "I think it's about being a vital show... 'Idol' is not gonna come back to being the ratings champion it once was, but what we believe is the show can be on the air for many years to come and will be a potent time period contender and a top-rated unscripted show that's a quality show, that people love that we can do business with, in the same way that 'Survivor' hasn't been at the top-ratings for many years and it has vital seasons year after year."
Reilly continues, "That's the mode we're now in with 'Idol.' It's not about turning it around. I think that story's been filed and now it's just about making it a good show for many years to come.
Adds Joe Earley, FOX's Chief Operating Officer, "The judging panel's amazing. The set is beautiful. The production values are top notch. It's more just a matter of maturation and gravity.
Reilly interjects, "Look, the show's 13 years old. I think eventually, you know... Plenty's been written about it's epic run. I think at a certain point, 13 years in, with the category sorta very crowded, you're seeing that in general on these competition shows. I mean, 'The Voice' had an incredible year, but it's been down every quarter that it's been on. That's just what's happening in that particular category."
We'll leave aside the reality that in its 28th installment and it's 14th year, "Survivor" has been comfortably beating "Idol" in its 13th installment and 13th year, showing that attrition seems to be hitting different shows in the reality category in different ways.
The question was asked about the current judging panel of Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban and the chances that they will return.
"I think it's likely," Reilly says. "We don't ever really confirm that until after the season wraps, but we're getting good indications from all of them."
Certainly the audition cities for Season 14 suggest optimism that the judges will return, with try-outs in New York City, New Orleans and Nashville, the domestic locations most associated with all three judges. I mean, what's the point in even visiting New Orleans if you don't have Harry around to tell you what New Orleans is?
Meanwhile, the Season 13 "American Idol" Top 3 will perform on Wednesday night and, on Thursday, we'll send somebody else packing.