Super Bowl Is a Savior for Fox as It Struggles to Revive American Idol

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Airing the Super Bowl may just turn out to be the Hail Mary pass that Fox Broadcasting needs this year as it contends with a bleak outlook for its former ratings-darling American Idol.

Fox, which is owned by News Corp. (NWS), has sold more than 90% of its Super Bowl advertising, almost five months before the championship game will be played in Texas. At this time last year, CBS (CBS) had sold just 70% of its inventory for the championship. (The Super Bowl migrates between networks each year). When airtime on a TV telecast is in demand, pricing gets high: Fox is charging an average of $3 million for a 30-second spot during the game. Estimates put CBS's price last year between $2.5 million and $3 million.

Those ad dollars could come in handy. American Idol is in the midst of a multi-year ratings slide and is dealing with the departure of three of its judges -- sharp-tongued Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi and comedienne Ellen DeGeneres -- hoping that new faces (Steven Tyler? Jennifer Lopez?) will recharge the program. Its average audience for this year's season finale was just over 24 million viewers, down from more than 36 million viewers in 2006.

The singing competition's woes "make the Super Bowl even more valuable, because as the audience continues to fractionalize, the Super Bowl is becoming the last mass media event on TV," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research at Horizon Media. Fox Broadcasting didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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That dynamic may be what's behind the return of several top advertisers to the championship. Pepsi, after bowing out of advertising during the last Super Bowl, will return with three 30-second spots for Pepsi Max, its zero-calorie drink, according to Advertising Age. PepsiCo's (PEP) snack sibling, Doritos, has also committed to three spots in the game. General Motors Co., after taking a two-year break from the Super Bowl, will return in February after emerging from bankruptcy protection.

Meanwhile, who will replace the previous American Idol judges should help create some buzz, but whether it will be enough to revive the show's ratings remains to be seen. Singer Jennifer Lopez may be announced as a judge on Sept. 22, reports the Hollywood Reporter. For months, Lopez has been rumored as one of the show's new judges, with questions about whether her "diva" demands would price her out of the show (reportedly, she's signed up for a $12 million deal to help freshen up the franchise.) But the real question may be not whether she's joining but whether viewers will care enough to tune in.
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