Can’t say I much enjoy the taste of crow. But recently I wrote to express skepticism that Paula Abdul really was walking away from American Idol. “She isn’t that crazy,” I wrote. It’s starting to look like I could be wrong.
As has been reported elsewhere, Abdul has suitors—or so it appears. ABC has expressed interest in hiring her in some still unspecified capacity for Dancing With the Stars. NBC may be in the game, too, and even at Fox, former Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe said he would be interested in talking to Abdul about joining So You Think You Can Dance (again, in an unspecified capacity).
“She’ll never be the soul of that show,” one executive says of Dancing With the Stars. “It’s already a big hit. She’s giving up being on the cast of Friends to go be in the Joey spinoff.”
Changing the chemistry on a hit show is always risky. But according to a top Fox executive, the network did not and will not increase its offer to appear on Idol because the show will go on without Abdul. “ Idol’s going to do what it’s going to do,” he says. “It was cresting a couple of seasons ago. At 12 percent erosion, it could still be No. 1 for the next six seasons.”
There is no law of television suggesting that a show like Idol would trend down gradually instead of hitting a wall. But American Idol is going into its ninth season and already has shown a lot more staying power than its competitors could have imagined or wished.
The head of another network agrees that Abdul’s departure won’t hurt ratings at all. While many fans describe Abdul as Idol’s heart and others just want to watch her ramble, this executive says he believes the show’s chemistry really is about just one man. “The other people are there to make sure that Simon Cowell doesn’t have to talk all the time,” he says.
Fox research suggests that a bunch of viewers who watch the show delayed on their DVRs (the only sensible approach) skip ahead to Cowell’s comments and only roll back and listen to the other judges if he has alluded to something that one of them said.
The same executive says he was surprised when Steve McPherson, president of the ABC Entertainment Group, told critics last weekend that he’s eager to have Abdul on Dancing With the Stars. “I was kind of surprised by Steve’s professed public love,” he says. “She’s difficult to work with. If he wants to add that chemistry to his show, then God bless him.” (It must be noted that the vagueness about the role that she’d play—judge? co-host? contestant?—suggests that his love is not unconditional.)
Even if the show made her a judge—and there seems to be no promise of that—another television veteran thinks Abdul is making a huge mistake if she decides that Dancing With the Stars is the answer. “She’ll never be the soul of that show,” this observer says. “It’s already a big hit. She’s giving up being on the cast of Friends to go be in the Joey spinoff.”
The Fox executive isn’t ruffled by the idea that ABC might bring Abdul aboard. He doesn’t believe she would have a lasting impact on the show’s ratings. For that reason, he says the network isn’t interested in making Abdul into another Jay Leno—getting into a bidding contest, say, to keep her on the network, either on Idol or So You Think You Can Dance—instead of letting her go to ABC.
He says he believes both Fox’s and ABC’s competition shows are already dancing as fast as they can. Abdul might drive a short-term ratings boost, he says, but soon that will be—sorry—all tapped out.
So I might yet have to eat crow, but I’m not ready to chew up that last feather yet. Paula Abdul could have already taken a good look at what’s really on offer elsewhere and decide that there’s no place like her Idol home.
Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.