American Idol: could we have seen it coming?

Kits_showboat_ii Last night, around 9:30, American Idol hit 42 million viewers.  This means that 40% of the homes in the US tuned in. 

What are the compelling questions for anthropology?  THIS is the compelling question for anthropology.  How can this many people be interested in what is nothing more complicated (or strictly speaking, more interesting) than a talent show. 

A talent show! Growing up in Vancouver, I sometimes saw a talent contest held every Wednesday night at the Showboat down on Kitsilano beach (pictured here in its newest, grandest manifestation, complete with the Vancouver Firefighter’s band).   Kids would twirl batons.  Someone would attempt an aria.  A lunatic would roll down from a local bar and try ill advised standup.  It was impossible to tell who won these contests.  Canadians are much too polite actually to signal a preference.  Not that it mattered.  There were only 7 people watching. 

Forty-two million viewers!  When did talent contests get this big?  How did this lowly form of entertainment commandeer the TV schedule?  It is not so difficult to answer these questions with the benefit of hindsight.  But imagine what it was like when, some years ago, the phone rang at Coke’s Atlanta headquarters, and someone on the marketing team was asked  whether Coke would like to sponsor a new show, now merely a twinkle in a producer’s eye. 

Tell me again what it is, again. 

Well, the show travels America and invites people to try out…and become the next American idol.

The next what?


What, like an Easter Island idol?

No, you know, like a really big star. 

But when you find them they’re total nobodies? 


Don’t you have to be Clive Davis to do this?

Well, actually, it’s a competition.  The nation will vote.

So it’s a talent contest.

Well, yes and no.

I thought talent contests died in the 1950s.  On the west coast.  Kitsilano showboat, wasn’t it?  The spring of 1959?

Well, yes, but this is brand new.  Completely different.

Precisely  the same, but completely different?


Every hour of every day, someone asks the Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) whether it wishes to participate in yet another invention of the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Most of the time, the TCCC says "no."  But not in this case.  In this case, TCCC said yes.  And the payoff was sensationally large.  Last night, 42 million people looked at branded cups.  Today, Thursday, January 18, 2007,  TCCC sold thousands upon thousands of gallons more.

Talk about dodging a bullet.  What if TCCC has said "no" to American Idol?  What if someone trusted their gut and their gut was wrong? 

So here’s the marketing problem.  What system of divination would have helped the TCCC make this decision?  What would have constituted "due diligence" in this case?

In a perfect world, TCCC marketing executive would have engaged a marketing appliance, a system of marketing intelligence that would have delivered, speedily and accurately, an answer to the following questions:

what is this?

This is really the most interesting question.  The marketer is asking, in effect, "tell me what I am looking at here?  Is this something or nothing.  If it’s something, what is it."

where does it come from?

Here the marketer asks for a historical answer to judge the trajectory of the trend.  The answer would be something like, this is a variation on the "talent contest."  Like spelling bees, the talent contest was an enthusiasm of rural America.  It fell from fashion in the 1950s with new technologies (transistor, radios, 45s, stereos), the emergence of powerful music labels and stars, (and a particularly awful aria at the Kitsilano showboat in 1959).  By a general cultural consensus, it was decided that the expert trumped the amateur. The possibility of renewal came in the 1970s when  Punk music and a culture of participation, as documented by Henry Jenkins, demonstrated a new willingness for non experts to take part.  {and so on.  None of this has good ethnographic or quantitative foundation.  As usual, I’m just guessing.)

does it have legs

We believe that the new talent contest has momentum, that it will enter the mainstream in 18 months, and pass from it in 2.5 years. 

for whom

here are the segments

in what numbers

here are the numbers

by what arch

here are the probable angles of the ascent, the most likely peak, these are the probable angles of the descent

what will it cost us

here’s what we think costs would be

what should we pay

here’s the return

In sum, what we need is a marketing appliance that draws on a deep knowledge of culture and commerce. 

The corporation is now called upon to make difficult decisions of the American Idol kind.  Maybe something is a good idea.  Maybe it’s a totally bad idea.  But the profit to be made (or lost) is so great, it is surely wrong to be guessing on opportunities and outcomes.

All of this is wishful thinking until the analyst begins to say, "what a second, are you telling me they are making their way in a dynamic marketplace without a way finding system?  Do you mean to tell me they don’t engage a decision making GPS?  You are asking me to invest in a company flying by the seat of its pants?  How about a little due diligence?"

Yeah, what he said.  How about a little due diligence here?

8 thoughts on “American Idol: could we have seen it coming?

  1. jens

    what numbers, grant? – who should come up with a vaguely precise forecast? – even an anthropologist would have probably seen it stranded on the shores of 1959… seriously: when you would have had to make a prediction to justify a gigantic spending of one of your clients, you would have probably come up with a moderate estimate and a phrase saying: …and there is still an extremely high risk involved.
    and that – to my concern – is the point.
    where should the numbers come from?

    it is a high stake poker game.
    creativity and the new organization.

  2. jens

    and just to bring it down to the boring old facts:
    a guy who had previously created the SpiceGirls out of some semi-talented next door teenagers thought that he could repeat the same thing over and over again with virtually anybody. as it was the time where the money had moved to TVshows like BigBrother, he thought that he should share the fun of creation with a wide audience (and cash in twice). – the british show PopIdol became a raving success. – very, very rich and a little bored with creating he pitched exactly the same format to investors in the US.

    i should think he had quite some cards in his hand when he spoke to tccc.

  3. Peter

    I guess these are the same questions, Grant, which Hollywood studio execs, music industry execs, TV network programmers, art gallery directors, etc, ask when they come to make content funding decisions. Who would have bet on Seinfeld being a huge hit when it piloted, for example? I suspect (but please don’t tell our clients this) that the answer to these questions is: “Nobody knows anything”.

  4. steve

    There are structual problems with strong predictions of the kind Grant wants; McCloskey’s If You’re So Smart gives a very entertaining and insightful rendition of these problems with respect to economic forecasting, literary criticism, etc. First, there’s the effiicient markets problem–if there exists a system that predicts what will work tomorrow, everyone will buy up/launch their own version of that content today, which will destroy the profits. Second, anyone who could predict accurately how successful different cultura products were going to be would be a fool to sell her expertise on this basis–she could cash in better by producing her own content. It’s like those ads for get-rich-quick schemes, where the seller would be using his knowledge rather than selling it if it were in fact valuable.

    Aside from these inherent structural problems, I’d be worried that there is a pretty strong butterfly effect with mass-culture popularity. Small shocks to viewership or coverage at an early stage may be wildly amplified. It seems clear that once many people start discussing a given show, others will join in simply to avoid being left out of the conversation. This phenomenon locks in popularity for a time because it’s hard for the public to coordinate on a new fad, but eventually taste leaders and/or simple boredom lead to something else catching fire. Remember when Who Wants to be a Millionaire conquered all before it? Now it’s just another show. Same for Survivor. Trying to come up with cultural explanations, even after the fact, for why this show and not that one hits it big strikes me as impossible in principle.

    It would be kind of cool if I were wrong about this, though.

  5. Tom Guarriello

    Somewhere between epistemological certainty and hand-flailing despair at the prospect of knowing anything at all lies a land of informed decision-making. A little hard to imagine, it’s probably the only thing resembling a “safe haven” that any corporation can sail for today. Good one, Grant.

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  7. kevrob

    Jens is right about the producers’ having a strong hand when they brought the show’s original British success to the table.

    As for talent shows fading out at the end of the 1950s, that isn’t how I looked at it. Ted Mack on TV, continuing from Major Bowes before him on the radio, kept the Original Amateur Hour alive until 1970, though Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts didn’t make it past 1958. Ed McMahon revived it as Star Search, running from from 1983 to 1995. SS had an unsuccessful revival, post-Idol.

    The talent show format didn’t fare well in the 1970s. Perhaps that’s because the dominant mode of popular music had changed in the 1960a from the solo performer to the rock band, and, to some extent, the recording studio act that doesn’t depend on live performance much. Some of the Disco Era acts were nearly as fictional as the Detergents or The Archies. As we hit the 80s, disco retreated to the dance clubs, punk and new wave tried and failed to re-make pop, and the ideal of the pop star was revived (especially through the music video). That’s where Ed McMahon comes in, though notably as the host of a syndicated, not a network program. SS never had the impact of Godfrey’s program, which had rated as #1, or of Idol. But the stars of that period, especially Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, are practically the patron saints of the melismatic warblings of the ladies of American Idol.

    I’m thinking the popularity of talent shows waxes and wanes, and that the fickle Finger of Fate will eventually trip up AI. The only question is how long the fad will last.


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