Will FOX profit from 'Idol Gives Back' telecast?
What's really bizarre about this upcoming over-hyped event is how much glowingly-positive buzz it has created. After all, this is American Idol we're talking about. The talent show seems to thrive not only on profit, but also on controversy.
Yet, where are all the naysayers and doubters? Where are the snarky bloggers? There is a small controversy about the charitable organizations that will benefit from this event. But other than that, I seem to be the only blogger in the universe cynical enough to think that this event sounds just a tad bit exploitive and self-serving.
I have to ask (because the entertainment journalists all seem too ga-ga over this event to do so): Is this for real or is FOX merely trying to boost their usually sagging late-April ratings and suck even more revenue out of its advertisers?
It seems to me that by attaching themselves to this charity event, American Idol has finally found a way to become untouchable. After all, no one wants to say anything bad about such a monstrous fundraising drive that will raise millions of dollars for poverty-stricken young people in Africa and America. Mark Shriver, head of US. operations for Save the Children (one of the recipients of the donations from the show and the focus of the Pro-Life controversy) gushed, "You have the biggest show on television making a real effort to change the world."
Yes, indeed, that's some good PR going on. Nice to see that journalists are eating this up and helping with the hype. But then again, who am I to question an event that even Bono has given his blessing to? Still, just because the outcome is honorable, and the parties involved have good intentions, that doesn't mean that the event itself is being held for purely unselfish, altruistic reasons.
It's called public relations, people. Corporate giants need to "give back" because it humanizes them, neutralizes their greedy image, and buys them good publicity. And it gives them tax write-offs, too. Of course, it's also the RIGHT thing to do. And there's probably even a bunch of people naive enough to believe that's the main reason these things are done. I've worked for non-profits and in public relations, so I'm not one of them. Heck, even Oprah doesn't go to Africa and build schools unless she can squeeze a TV special and some extra-special publicity out of it, securing her own saintly image.
I also think it's odd how much they've hyped this star-studded event, while doling out very few details about how much they hope to raise during this event. Having worked for the United Way, I know that charities generally set fundraising goals. Plus, the details we've gotten have been vague and sketchy. We've been told that Idol's sponsors (Ford, AT&T, Coca-Cola, and News Corp.) are donating a percentage based on number of calls. What exactly does that mean? They know Idol receives anywhere from 33 to 38 million votes. Shouldn't they come up with a formula based on estimated calls before, rather than after, the actual event? Or are they afraid they might over-hype the event and receive twice as many phone calls as expected?
The Philanthropy Journal contacted FOX, and they couldn't get clarification on any of the fundraising details. On their blog, the Philanthropy Journal criticized this lack of information and suggested Idol could maximize its fundraising by "treating its viewers like donors, cultivating them and engaging them with substantive information instead of shallow hype."
(EDITED TO UPDATE: On Tuesday night, Ryan finally explained that News Corp will donate 10 cents for every call received [up to a maximimum of 50 million calls] for a total of $5 million dollars.)
It goes without saying that raising money for impoverished families in America and Africa is a noble cause. And yes, it's fantastic to see celebrities show-up in support of such an effort. It's also amazing that the top-rated show on TV is going to dedicate an entire two-hour episode to raising awareness about these issues. But what would be even more amazing is if the network supporting such an event -- didn't have anything to gain by supporting it.
Will FOX profit from Idol Gives Back? It certainly will gain the "goodwill" and admiration of even the most cynical-minded critics for its efforts. However, with all the money they've made on Idol, they also could have simply given a hefty corporate donation -- without bringing all of this attention to themselves. After all, according to Advertising Age magazine, the show's franchise is worth approximately $2.5 billion, with $500 million coming in just from TV advertising each year. They clearly have the means to "give back."
Therefore, if they really just wanted to "give something back," they could have done so without creating a monstrous event that cast them in a self-congratulatory glowing light. Instead of asking for money from the public, they could have asked FOX and News Corp to dip into their corporate wallets a little deeper. Having worked in non-profits, I know that when donors truly gives from their hearts, there is no need for attention, publicity, or weeks of on-air patting themselves on the back. Yet, each week, Idol says, "Look at how generous we are -- aren't we wonderful?" Seriously, am I the only one who finds this self-serving?
Which still doesn't answer the question: Will FOX actually make money on this programming extravaganza? News Corp (the parent company of FOX) already generously pledged $5 million to the charity event. Is News Corp putting its money where its mouth is? Or is this just a token pledge? And worse, are they expecting to raise advertising revenue that far exceeds this pledge?
On September 21, 2001, the four major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX) came together to televise the star-studded 9-11 telethon, America: A Tribute to Heroes, organized by none other than George Clooney. All of the talent donated their time to that event which was televised uninterrupted and WITHOUT commercials. In 2005, NBC stepped up to host a two-hour celebrity telethon, Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope. This event was also televised without commercials. Also, in 2005, six networks (ABC, NBC, CBS. FOX, UPN, and WB) all simultaneously televised the Katrina telethon, Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast. Once again, the one-hour fundraising event was run commercial-free. I'm assuming these events were televised without commercials because the networks didn't want to "cash in" on these tragedies.
From what I can tell, FOX IS televising Idol Gives Back WITH commercials. And I'm only assuming this because I haven't heard declarations of anything otherwise. Considering the fact that American Idol currently pulls in the highest advertising rates, this is not a small detail worth glossing over.
Idol reportedly nabs as much as $700,000 per 30 second spot from its top sponsors. During last year's finale, it pulled in $1.3 million per spot. In comparison, Bones pulls in below average rates around $115,000 per 30 second spot. As you can see, by bumping Bones for the evening and offering two-hours of star-studded Idol entertainment, FOX is able to rake in a lot more advertising bucks. We're talking millions of dollars here. At $700,000 a pop, they only have to run 10 commercials and they make $7 million. Run 20 commercials, and they're making $14 million. Even in 2005, Idol's two-hour finale brought in over $40 million in TV advertising. With that in mind, News Corp's $5 million doesn't seem all that generous, does it?
Which is why this whole charity event rubs me the wrong way. Can't you see where I might find it a bit exploitive to use poverty-stricken children to attract A-List celebrities so you can hype a two-hour block of highly-desirable programming (which costs you very little to produce)? Especially, when this programming, which costs you little, generates huge advertising revenue and also boosts your ratings for another week. And as an extra bonus you have journalists around the world making declarations about your show "changing the world" and "saving the children?"
Interestingly enough, the biggest controversy surrounding the 9-11 and Tsunami telethons was instigated by FOX News' Bill O'Reilly. In 2005, O'Reilly said, "We want the telethon to be a big success, and we applaud the time and generosity of George Clooney and the other stars . . . But with power comes responsibility. And we expect all the telethon people to understand that." I agree with this statement, and I assume FOX does too. Of course, I'm not surprised that O'Reilly doesn't feel the need to personally scrutinize a celebrity-driven event hosted by FOX.
Perhaps I'm being overly-cynical, and FOX will break even on the night or even generously donate ALL of the advertising revenue generated by the event. I'm open to the possibility that I may be wrong and FOX is running the entire event WITHOUT commercials. I've tried my best to find the facts, but FOX publicity hasn't exactly made any of this clear. Outside of the on-air hype, we've received few details. I've emailed and left voicemails for FOX, and haven't received any immediate response. So I'm left with my questions.
One thing is clear -- FOX and American Idol are going to raise a lot of money this week. And this is a good thing. It certainly is about time the money-making juggernaut "gave something back." But I think it's worth asking what's in it for them? And I'm wondering why I'm the only one even asking.