Nielsen Measures the American Idol Phenomenon

May 16, 2008

This article is included in these additional categories:

Media & Entertainment | Television

A week before the finale of American Idol‘s seventh season, the Nielsen Company reported TV, advertising, mobile, music and online data trends about FOX‘s runaway hit and its contestants.

Highlights of the data issued:

  • TV Ratings. People age 35-49 watched American Idol Season 7 the most, making up almost 29% of the total audience. The most-watched episode this season was the premiere episode on Tuesday, 1/15/08, averaging 33 million viewers.
  • Advertising. During 2007, American Idol featured 4,349 product placement occurrences. So far in 2008, the number of placements is surging – the program racked up 3,291 occurrences the first three months of 2008 alone.
  • Mobile. The average American Idol participant voted via text message 38 times in April 2008.
  • Music. Kelly Clarkson is the best-selling American Idol contestant with album and digital download sales of 18.9 million. Carrie Underwood is second with album and digital download sales of 15.7 million.
  • Online. Male contestants David Cook, David Archuleta and Jason Castro dominate the show’s consumer discussion online with 14.3% and 12.5% and 10.5% buzz volume, respectively. The most popular American Idol contestant from opinions and feedback from Hey! Nielsen’s online panel is Carrie Underwood. Web traffic to American Idol websites saw the most unique visitors in March 2007.

TV Ratings

American Idol’s highest viewership was Season 5, when more than 30 million people watched on average, compared with 12 million the first season and 27 million this season.

The East Central part of the United States has the highest viewing levels above the national average, while the Southwest has the lowest viewing levels below average:


People age 35-49 watched American Idol Season 7 the most, making up almost 29% of the total audience:


The most-watched episode this season was the premiere episode on Tuesday, 1/15/08 averaging 33 million viewers.

The most watched American Idol episode ever was the final hour of Season 2 on Wednesday, 5/21/2003; more than 38 million viewers tuned in live to watch the face off between winner Ruben Studdard and runner-up Clay Aiken.


Top Advertisers

Coca-Cola was the top American Idol season 7 advertiser for the first quarter of 2008, followed by AT&T and Ford. Procter & Gamble and Apple rounded out the top five:


All five of these companies have advertised on American Idol since 2002 and, with the exception of Apple, all of them also held slots among the top five American Idol advertisers in season 6 (Jan. 16 – March 23, 2007).

Product Placements

During season 6 (Jan. 16 – May 23, 2007), American Idol featured 4,349 product placement occurrences. As of March 31, 2008, the number of placements featured during season 7 was surging–American Idol had already racked up 3,291 occurrences:


Coca-Cola and AT&T Wireless were the top two featured brands on American Idol during the first quarter of 2008. In season 6, Cingular Wireless rounded out the top three – but in early 2008, Ford claimed the third slot.

Coca-Cola, which has an ongoing advertising association with American Idol, far outpaced all other brands’ product placements on the program, beating second-place AT&T Wireless by more than 2,000 occurrences during both season 6 and the first quarter of 2008 (season 7).

During both seasons 6 and the portion of season 7 included in this analysis (Jan. 15 – March 31, 2008), product placements on American Idol appeared most often in foreground shots. In season 6, there were 3,030 foreground placements on the program; in the first three months of 2008, there were 2,154 foreground occurrences.

In season 6, background placements (372 occurrences) and prop placements (234 occurrences) rounded out the top three, while in the first quarter of 2008, call to action placements (310 occurrences) and wardrobe placements (206 occurrences) claimed second and third place, respectively.


Popularity Contest

The most popular American Idol contestant, according to Hey! Nielsen’s online panel, is Carrie Underwood, followed by Clay Aiken and David Archuleta – Season 7’s most popular contestant.

Online Buzz

Buzz volume generated from “Idol” contestants was highest for David Cook (14.3%), David Archuleta (12.5%), and Jason Castro (10.5%), according to Nielsen Online’s monitored consumer-generated content from approximately 70 million blogs.


  • Even after being voted off two weeks ago, Brooke White continues to be a topic of online conversations (7.5% buzz volume).
  • Syesha Mercado trails with 5.4%.


  • Buzz for judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson has remained consistent Jan-May, but consumer discussion about Paula Abdul has increased – as much as 200% from earlier in the year after her pre Super Bowl game performance, and up an additional 84% on April 30th after she critiqued two performances for David Castro although the contestant only sang one time.

Web Traffic

March ’07 saw the most unique visitors to American Idol websites ( or


Among the top 10 highly-trafficked months, visitors spent the most amount of time on the websites during Season 5 (over 10 minutes during March, April, and May ’06).


Nielsen Mobile tracked text message voting (AT&T subscribers only) through a panel of 43,000 US wireless lines and found that…

  • The average American Idol viewer voted via text message did so 38 times in April ’08, with the April 29th show generating three times the number of texts than the April 1st show (27 vs. 9).
  • Female voters submitted 44% more text-message votes than their male counterparts.


Digital and Download Sales

The best selling American Idol contestant is Kelly Clarkson, with album and digital download sales of 18.9 million.


Carrie Underwood is second (15.7 million) and also second among “Idol” contestants in 2006, which helped to sell 1.7 million copies of her second album, “Carnival Ride,” in less than three months.

Album Sales

There are often discrepancies between winning on stage and winning in sales, Nielsen found.

  • Clay Aiken’s first album has outsold that of Ruben Studdard (2.8 million to date, vs. 1.8 million) even though Studdard was 2003 “Idol” champion.
  • During the 2006 season, Chris Daughtry came in fourth, but his band Daughtry had the best selling album (2.5 million copies during 2007) by any of the year’s finalists.
  • Until 2006, each season’s “American Idol” winner sold at least 1 million copies on his or her debut album.

Billboard Hot 100 Singles


The current single “No Air,” of reigning “Idol” queen Jordin Sparks, is in its 10th week in the top 10 on The Billboard Hot 100, helping the album gain in four of the last five weeks.

“Idol” performances can also prompt huge digital sales spikes and album gains for the original artists covered – Jason Castro’s homage to Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and his take on Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’Ole’s version of “What A Wonderful World” thrusted the original versions to No. 1 and No. 11 on the Hot Digital Song list.

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