ABC passed on American Idol twice, just like it did with Survivor

One of the iconic stories in reality TV history is the tale about a little show that every network turned down: American Idol. It’s one of those decisions that looks moronic in hindsight but may have been somewhat rational at the time. A talent show? On American television? In 2002?

In his new book Desperate Networks, excerpted in the New York Times yesterday, Bill Carter examines how the three Simons–Cowell, Fuller, and Jones–pitched the show unsuccessfully to every network before FOX finally picked it up. The story has been told before–notably in Simon Cowell’s book I Don’t Mean to Be Rude, But…–but Carter adds some interesting anecdotes.

For example, ABC’s Andrea Wong passed twice (just like with Survivor, morons), because ABC’s Making the Band didn’t do so well, and neither did The WB’s Popstars, and thus didn’t see the format working. Carter writes, “Music had become just too stratified, the argument went, to ever build a wide-enough appeal in the United States to succeed on the scale that an American network television show required.” FOX rejected the show initially because the network “was out of money” for the year, and told the producers to come back if they could line up sponsors to do the show for free.

Carter also provides evidence that, long before he was on American TV, Simon Cowell was a condescending dick: He told a female UPN executive, “Well, actually, sweetheart, it’s more a question of what I could be doing for you.”

The show’s audition format was not pre-planned. At the first taped Pop Idol audition, Simon “turned to one of the other judges, the veteran British pop producer Pete Waterman, and said: ‘We have to actually tell the performers to their faces what we thought. We’ve just got to tell these boys and girls the truth. They’re rubbish.'”

By the time the American version started, that brutally honest response was a given, but Paula Abdul had no idea what was coming, and was genuinely horrified, having never met Simon before that first audition. Thus began the start of a beautiful relationship.

Finally, Carter notes that it was Rupert Murdoch’s daughter who was ultimately responsible for the FOX pick-up, as she was a fan of Pop Idol in the UK. Better, Murdoch told FOX to not screw with the format. “You don’t change a thing. This show works in England. And you’re going to make the same show they made in England. The problem with you Hollywood people is you always want to change things and you ruin everything,” he said, according to Carter.

How a Hit Almost Failed Its Own Audition [New York Times]

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.