`Idol Factor' boosts local news

May 23, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

When the sixth season of American Idol ends tonight with the crowning of a new winner, no one will mourn its departure more than local TV station executives such as Bill Fanshawe.

For five months, Fox's megahit talent show has boosted late local news ratings on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings by an astounding margin - in some cases by more than 300 percent. Indeed, the show, which this year commanded an average nightly audience of 29.8 million, is so powerful that it has reshaped some local Fox newscasts.

"American Idol has a huge impact on local news - and it's not just here, but across the country," says Fanshawe, general manager of Baltimore's Fox 45. "We draw audiences for our late news on Tuesday and Wednesday nights after Idol that are sometimes three- or fourfold what we normally do."

Industry professionals for years have been aware of the much-touted "Oprah Factor" - the documented power of Oprah Winfrey's afternoon talk show to increase ratings for early evening local newscasts that follow.

But this year, the ripple effect of American Idol during its 20-week season surpasses that of the syndicated daytime talk show by far. While the Oprah Factor typically boosts newscast viewership by up to 25 percent, increases for newscasts that follow American Idol can be as high as 325 percent. And those gains are being made with young viewers, the ones advertisers want most.

Even the competition acknowledges the power of Idol to rearrange the local news landscape.

"American Idol absolutely has a pronounced effect on local news ratings," says Jordan Wertlieb, president and general manager of market-leading WBAL (Channel 11), the Baltimore station that carries The Oprah Winfrey Show. "It is similar to the Oprah Factor, though I'd point out that Oprah is on all year delivering those ratings, while Idol only airs from January through May."

Nielsen ratings for WBFF offer a vivid snapshot of what's happening in local markets coast to coast: Last November, when Idol was not on the air, WBFF's 10 p.m. newscast on Tuesdays and Wednesdays drew 23,408 viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 - the demographic most desired by advertisers and the most difficult to attract.

In February, with Idol up and running, that audience jumped to 99,792 young adults.

Overall, WBFF's Tuesday and Wednesday night news audiences more than doubled, from 84,134 viewers in November to 179,124 in February, making the 10 p.m. news program the highest-rated late local newscast on those two nights. (By nearly every other measure, WBAL is the overall leader in late local news.)

"Those are phenomenal numbers, particularly with young viewers," says media economist Douglas Gomery of the University of Maryland. "For a TV network to prosper, it has to keep its affiliates happy. And nothing makes an affiliate happier than having a big lead-in from the network for its late local news, because affiliates get to keep all that money for themselves."

While Fanshawe and other station managers declined to discuss earnings, Gomery estimates that WBFF's Tuesday and Wednesday audience surge could mean up to $1.25 million in added revenue for the five months of Idol's run. That does not include money earned for commercials that air during American Idol, which the affiliate splits with the Fox network.

Station managers of Fox affiliates across the country are reaping a similar bounty.

"The Bluegrass State loves American Idol, and that has carried over to our newscast," says Michael Brickey, general manager of WDKY-TV (Channel 56) in Lexington, Ky. "You can see it in the diaries [Nielsen Media Research viewing logs], where viewers write: `I watched Fox 56 News right after American Idol.'"

John Seabers, general manager of KABB-TV (Channel 29) in San Antonio, calls the phenomenon "unbelievable."

"Idol performs terrific here," Seabers says. "It's been the biggest Idol year ever for us, and that's unheard of for a show's sixth season. I've not seen anything like it in my 25 years in the business."

The twice-a-week late-news lift provided by Idol this year is unprecedented, network executives and analysts say.

"In its heyday [during the 1980s], when NBC had that strong Thursday night of comedies, and then when ER was dominating Thursday nights at 10 o'clock in the 1990s, you would see significant benefit for the local stations," says Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic program planning at Fox. "But there's never been anything like this show, because for one thing, it's on two nights a week. So, stations get a chance to have a Tuesday and Wednesday pop for their newscasts."

And the cultural juggernaut's impact stretches beyond the local news ratings. As Fox affiliates scramble to capitalize on the windfall, they are reshaping their newscasts by devoting significant amounts of air time to reports about American Idol.

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