'American Idol' Abroad: The World Is Listening

LOS ANGELES (May 23, 2006) — Rohit Sarang of Bombay, India, was a Chris Daughtry fan but is eager to see if Katharine McPhee or Taylor Hicks is crowned the latest “American Idol.”

Leong Ai Syn of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shares the anticipation.

Joining them are television viewers from Israel to Iceland to Japan and beyond. When “American Idol” sings, a fair share of the world is listening.

The show originating on the Fox TV network here has proven its international appeal even as the format is reproduced in more than 30 versions tailored to specific countries and languages.

“Hrvatski Idol” in Croatia and “Deutschland Sucht Den Superstar!” in Germany have the stage to themselves. But in Iceland, fans can watch both “Idols — Stjornuleit” and “American Idol.” “Malaysian Idol” is a smash hit while another camp favors the U.S. import.

Episodes are seen about 48 hours after they air in America and international viewers can’t help decide the outcome by phone or text messaging, as in the United States. But those issues don’t matter to followers.

“It’s fine that we can’t vote in India. I don’t care about that,” said Sarang, 32, an engineer who makes sure his family records “American Idol” if he isn’t home for it. “It’s fun just watching a show that’s well-produced with songs that are well-known.”

In Malaysia, locally created “Malaysian Idol” has been hot since debuting in 2004, with about 1.6 million votes cast for the second season’s finale last September — an impressive number in a population of 26 million.

But the country also is taken with “American Idol,” which has provoked fervent debate on radio shows and the Internet, as it has in the United States.

“I think `American Idol’ is addictive because you get to watch really talented people turn into big stars,” said Leong, 29, an information technology consultant. “Everyone wants to see who the next Kelly Clarkson will be.”

Since its second year on Fox, the U.S. show “has gradually gone into the international marketplace. And it’s been very, very successful,” said David Ellender, chief executive officer of Bertelsmann AG-owned FremantleMedia Enterprises, whose FremantleMedia North America produces the program (with 19 Entertainment).

Fremantle International Distribution markets “American Idol” internationally, while FremantleMedia sells the format abroad.

Ellender declined to discuss how much money the “Idol” brand generates internationally. But with advertising, license fees, merchandising and recording revenues taken together, the figure, according to one report, exceeds $1 billion a year.

Fremantle doesn’t have the talent-contest market to itself.

Competitor “Operacion Triunfo” has enjoyed popularity in Spain and Latin America, while the memorably titled “The Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Supergirl Contest,” sponsored by the Mongolian Cow Dairy, was a Chinese hit.

“American Idol,” however, must be the genre’s best-traveled example. It’s shown in about 20 markets via terrestrial broadcasting and reaches another 60-plus markets through satellite feeds for Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East, for a total of 154 countries, Fremantle’s Ellender said.

While “American Idol” is the top-rated U.S. show, viewership abroad is difficult to measure. But “in terms of the response they’re getting from advertisers, from people writing or e-mailing to the channel, clearly it’s working because they’re continuing to renew” the series, he said.

Although a few other versions of the “Idol” franchise cross boundaries — “Australian Idol,” for instance, is seen in New Zealand, and there’s a pan-regional Latin American version — “American Idol’s” unusually wide exportation represents a “strategic decision,” Ellender said.

That was based on the success of the U.S. show at home and the fact that an English-language product lends itself to wider distribution.

Given the show’s unabashedly nationalistic title and current global political tensions, has Fremantle encountered any resistance? “No, not in any market,” Ellender said, crediting the program’s allure and the fact that “American music is universal.”

Enthusiasm for “American Idol” varies among countries and regions. The series is a widespread hit in Asia but has been largely ignored in South Africa, in part because it — and the local version, “Idols” — airs on pay TV that’s out of reach for many South Africans.

In England, where the franchise began with “Pop Idol,” offspring “American Idol” is relegated to Friday nights on a non-terrestrial channel with a limited reach.

One TV newspaper editor there called it “quite fun” but said it’s competing in an over-saturated market and with a handicap: its judges, including the acid-tongued Simon Cowell, whose act was already on view in the original.

“Paula Abdul is a pretty obscure ‘80s pop star, and no one knows who the other guy (music producer Randy Jackson) is,” said Richard Vine of Guardian Guide. “Weird thing is they seem much more nice. He’s (Cowell) not so much for shock here anymore.”

In Sweden, the U.S. version attracts less than a third of the homegrown “Idol.” “It is much more personal to watch the Swedish contestants. They are easier to relate to,” said Elin Sandberg, 16, who auditioned for the Swedish series.

But “American Idol” fan Leong of Malaysia said quality is what counts for her.

“Some of our `Malaysian Idol’ contestants wouldn’t stand a chance on ‘American Idol,”’ she said. “Maybe it’s because the United States is bigger than Malaysia, so there’s more talent out there.”

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