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Leslie Moonves Explains Why CBS Passed on ‘American Idol’: ‘We Looked at it Very Seriously’

Variety logo Variety 5/17/2017 Elizabeth Wagmeister
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Before “American Idol” was revived at ABC, a sizable amount of speculation circulated regarding where the singing competition show would land, from ABC to NBC to its former home Fox — but one broadcaster was left out of the conversation: CBS.

Turns out, CBS was very much a part of the conversation to potentially bring “Idol” back to television.

“We were offered ‘American Idol’ at the time and we looked at it,” CBS Corp. chairman and CEO, Leslie Moonves, shared Wednesday morning at an annual press gathering, ahead of CBS’ Upfront presentation in New York City.

“We looked at it. We looked at it very seriously,” he admitted. “The economics just didn’t make sense for us; for them, it did,” he added, referring to ABC.

Moonves explained to reporters that CBS declined “Idol” because of the high cost, not having ownership of the series, which is produced by FremantleMedia and Core Media Group, plus the amount of real estate that the singing competition would take up on the CBS schedule — the most-watched broadcast network. On that note, during the breakfast, Moonves and his executive Kelly Kahl boasted about CBS — not NBC — defining “must-see-TV,” and proudly chatted about having the top comedy and drama in “The Big Bang Theory” and “Bull” with Kahl stating, “We launched the most watched drama on TV this year. It ain’t ‘This Is Us.’ It’s ‘Bull.'”

Speaking on “Idol,” Moonves said, “For a couple of reasons, we didn’t like it. For one, the price is so expensive. You need a 35 share to break even. So that’s not going to happen. Number two, the back-end of these shows is becoming more important or as important as the front end. We think that we are in a much stronger position that we wouldn’t want to take four hours of our schedule that we wouldn’t have any piece of selling any back-end.”

ABC’s “American Idol” move has been a top topic of conversation during this week’s Upfronts marathon with many network executives sharing their thoughts on the revival. ABC quickly touched on their excitement for “Idol” and announced that Katy Perry has signed on as the first judge. Meanwhile, Fox boss Dana Walden did not have minced words when reporters asked her on a Monday morning call about losing the show to ABC, saying, “It would be extremely fraudulent to bring the show back quickly…We felt that our fans would not appreciate being told one thing and then have the show brought back right away.”

“Idol” ran for 15 seasons on Fox, beginning in 2002. Before landing at ABC, Fremantle and Core pitched around town. At one point, NBC was in discussions, but insiders said the price-tag was too high for the network that already has their own successful singing competition series in “The Voice.” The production companies also re-pitched the show to Fox, which per Walden, turned down the offer.

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