'American Idol' final season to be four weeks shorter than last

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Ryan Seacrest Reveals ALL Judges Set To Return For American Idol's Final Season

A version of this article first appeared in the Year In Music issue of Billboard.

Ryan Seacrest kicked off a Dec. 8 taping of American Idol at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre with a joke. "I'll be performing a ballad by Adele," cracked the host and 15-year veteran of the Fox show as 50 hopefuls, their friends and family, and a trifecta of star judges settled in their seats. "I'm also available to DJ weddings, bar ­mitzvahs, parties ..."

Indeed, the busiest man in show business will be a little less busy come April when Idol sings its last note, anointing a winner four weeks earlier than in previous years, sources reveal to Billboard.

FremantleMedia North America president of entertainment programming Trish Kinane, who shares showrunning duties with Fox executive vp David Hill, won't confirm season 15's truncated schedule, but she does acknowledge, "The storytelling works better in [fewer] weeks." The problem, surmises Kinane, is that during its heyday, "Idol was so successful [that the season] got too extended too much. There are only so many hours that ­viewers will devote to watching these shows, so if it is shorter this year, it will be a good thing."

And by that she means good for everyone. According to an insider, the decision to condense the competition was "the ­network's," which by this point wants to cut its losses with the show that once had a season-five high of 35 ­million viewers, but was able to draw only 11 million during its most recent round in 2015 (the winner was Nick Fradiani, if you don't recall). Ad revenue, meanwhile, has fallen from $628 ­million in 2013 to $427 million a year later when a 30-second spot went for less than $300,000 (down from 2011's rate of $500,000), ­according to Kantar Media.

Photos from the most recent season of American Idol:

12 PHOTOS
American Idol season 14
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'American Idol' final season to be four weeks shorter than last
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 06: Contestant Clark Beckham performs onstage at FOX's 'American Idol XIV' Top 3 Revealed on May 6, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Becker/FOX via Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 06: (L-R) Contestants Rayvon Owen, Clark Beckham and Jax onstage at FOX's 'American Idol XIV' Top 3 Revealed on May 6, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Becker/FOX via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 11: (L-R) Musician Keith Urban, singer/actress Jennifer Lopez and musician Harry Connick Jr. arrive at Fox TV's 'American Idol XIV' finalist party at The District on March 11, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 29: (L-R) Top 5 contestants Jax, Nick Fradiani, Clark Beckham, Tyanna Jones and Rayvon Owen onstage at FOX's 'American Idol XIV' Top 4 Revealed on April 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Becker/FOX via Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 06: (L-R) Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. onstage at FOX's 'American Idol XIV' Top 3 Revealed on May 6, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Becker/FOX via Getty Images)
EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - MAY 01: 'American Idol' finalist Jax performs at her homecoming on May 1, 2015 on May 1, 2015 in East Brunswick, New Jersey. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images)
GUILFORD, CT - MAY 01: 'American Idol' finalist Nick Fradiani performs at his homecoming on May 1, 2015 in Guilford, Connecticut. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - MAY 01: Rayvon Adams visits Henrico High School during his American Idol homecoming visit on May 1, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 11: (L-R) Top 12 contestants Daniel Seavey, Nick Fradiani, Sarina-Joi Crowe, Clark Beckham, Maddie Walker, Jax, Qaasim Middleton, Adanna Duru, Quentin Alexander, Joey Cook, Rayvon Owen and Tyanna Jones onstage at FOX's 'American Idol XIV' Top 12 Revealed on March 11, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 06: Contestant Nick Fradiani performs onstage at FOX's 'American Idol XIV' Top 3 Revealed on May 6, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Becker/FOX via Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 06: Judge Keith Urban onstage at FOX's 'American Idol XIV' Top 3 Revealed on May 6, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Becker/FOX via Getty Images)
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Similarly, stakeholders like 19 Entertainment, the ­management arm of Idol (which season 11 ­winner Phillip Phillips is suing for what his lawyer says is an ­"oppressive" contract), and ­business partners past and ­present (Sony labels RCA and Sony Nashville, Universal's Interscope Records and Mercury Nashville, among others) don't seem to be lamenting the closing of this chapter, which has awarded a couple of dozen major-label deals in addition to many more starts and stops. Although recording advances for Idol finalists long ago ­stabilized (the $400,000 paydays of the Taylor Hicks era now come in closer to $150,000), the investment in taking an act beyond its momentary TV fan base is still steep -- and rarely pays off.​

So what can the music business take away from the 15-year run of American Idol? Did the show rewrite the A&R rule book, for better (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert) or worse (the nonstarter victors of seasons 12, 13 and maybe 14)? Jeff Rabhan, chairman of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and a former ­manager of Idols Clarkson, Clay AikenandElliott Yamin, says the show mirrored what already was happening in the music industry. "Scouting gave way to research-based A&R," he says. "Plays, ­chatter and views dictate who's the next 'discovery.' "

Still, the results were mixed even on the higher-rated seasons, averaging at best one successful ­graduate from each successive Idol class -- a better track record than The Voice, but the NBC competitor would argue it similarly boosted its coaches' ­profiles. (Meanwhile, Idol judge Jennifer Lopez is set to simultaneously launch a Las Vegas show in January 2016, while Harry Connick Jr. will host his own ­syndicated ­daytime talker in September.)

Kinane points to another statistic: half of Idol's top 10 finalists came through the show's massive open call auditions process, as opposed to YouTube submissions or casting, as The Voice does. "It's something we did right."

Big Machine Records' Scott Borchetta, who has served as in-house ­mentor on Idol since season 14, describes the show's impact as "a big door that is ­unfortunately ­slamming shut," but points to ­opportunities in other areas of the music business, like songwriting and featured slots. Indeed, Idols have been known to appear in the most unexpected places -- recently, season-six top 12 finalist Brandon Rogers scored a credit on Troye Sivan's Capitol Records debut, while season-six ­winner Jordin Sparks guests on Thomas Rhett's new album, "Tangled Up."

But almost as ­common are the ones that got away. For instance: Season eight's Todrick Hall never advanced beyond the top 24 but has since landed ­management by Scooter Braun and his own MTV series and the starring role on Virgin America's flight safety music video, seen monthly by over 650,000 air travelers. Also in the Braun universe is season-nine reject Tori Kelly, who, -according to multiple insiders, then-judge Simon Cowell tried to sign to his own Syco Entertainment just as he was about to bolt the show for a competing series, The X Factor, on the same network. "If ever there was a sure winner, it was Tori Kelly," says one show veteran.

Celebrating scandals alongside accolades is de rigueur in the United Kingdom, where the Idol concept originated, but will producers go there for its last victory lap? Nigel Lythgoe, who has been brought in to helm American Idol's two-night finale, will only say that "it won't all be a nostalgia fest ... We've still got to crown the 15th winner."

And don't rule out an afterlife on a digital network like Hulu or Netflix. Says Kinane: "We haven't seen the end of this brand." Judge Keith Urban, for one, is all for it. "I'd love to see if the show can be restructured and continue forward with relevancy and potency in a rapidly changing industry," he says. "Everybody knows American Idol."

American Idol contestants -- where are they now?
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American Idol contestants - Where are they now?
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'American Idol' final season to be four weeks shorter than last
LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 22: Recording artist Taylor Hicks arrives at Tony La Russa's 3rd annual Leaders & Legends Gala benefitting the Animal Rescue Foundation at the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino on November 22, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for Animal Rescue Foundation)
Frenchie Davis attends the 45th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on February 23, 2003 in New York City. (Getty Images)
Singer Sanjaya Malakar attends The 2nd Annual ASPCA Rock n' Roll LA Benefit at The Olympic Collection on October 6, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)
David Archuleta performs during the 2011 "Make A Difference" benefit concert at the Ronald McDonald House on November 8, 2011 in New York City.
Kimberley Locke, Rickey Smith and Vanessa Olivarez. (Getty Images)
Singer Melinda Doolittle attends the Red Tie Gala Hosted by Blood:Water Mission and sponsored by Noodle & Boo at Hutton Hotel on November 21, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Getty Images)
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