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‘Idol’ sings a familiar refrain

Skein preemed with 15.2 rating/34 share in adults 18-49

The race is on to find the next American Idol, and so too perhaps the season’s ratings champ.

Fox dug itself a considerable hole in the first half of the season, but Tuesday’s record start for “American Idol,” on the heels of a best-yet opening for “24,” gives the net a shot to close the gap in a hurry.

Look for a tightly contested three-way race in the stretch run of the season among ABC, CBS and Fox for the coveted adults 18-49 crown.

On Tuesday, “American Idol” opened in very impressive fashion, with its 15.3 rating/34 share in adults 18-49, a 9% improvement over last year’s huge two-hour premiere (14.0/33), according to prelim Nielsen results. It was also up in all other demos as well as total viewers (35.5 million vs. 33.6 million a year ago).

It was the highest-rated “Idol” premiere and the second-best score for any “Idol” episode, behind the finale of “Idol 3” in May 2004.

Among all entertainment programs on any net, no telecast has rated better in 18-49 since the finale of NBC’s “Friends” in May 2004.

Show again exhibited across-the-board strength, with a 33 share in adults 25-54 and a 37 in persons 12-34. From 8 to 10, it beat the other five broadcast nets combined by 26% in 18-49 and by 80% in 12-34.

“By no rational means could any of us have sat in these offices until this morning at 5:15 and imagined this number could have gone up 9%,” Fox entertainment prexy Peter Liguori said, calling the skein’s continued success “humbling.”

“There’s NFL season, there’s NASCAR season, and there’s ‘Idol’ season. It’s a part of the American culture now,” he said.

One network wag, upon seeing the early “Idol” ratings, immediately sent out an email to colleagues that summed up the mood among Fox’s rivals Wednesday: “The Death Star is back. Run for your lives!”

As for the season’s 18-49 race, ABC and CBS are tied at a 4.0 rating, with NBC and Fox well back at a 3.1. The Alphabet has the inside track, supplementing its regular sked with both the Super Bowl and Academy Awards.

But with a convincing victory this week — capped by Sunday’s NFL conference championship game — Fox will be on its way to at least challenge for the season lead if its top shows hold up.

And in “American Idol” and “24” it has two skeins that will run nonstop through the end of the season. Net’s “House” also is a dominant player on Tuesday (and will air limited repeats), while Fox should get boosts from “Skating With Celebrities” and the March return of “Prison Break.”

Elsewhere in Tuesday’s ratings races, CBS got off to a decent start at 10 with the premiere of “Love Monkey” (prelim 3.5/9 in 18-49, 8.6 million). Show did lose one share in the second half-hour, though, likely the result of a flood of “Idol” viewers sampling the Eye skein early on.

CBS hasn’t posted a better 18-49 score for a regular drama in the hour since “Judging Amy” in May 2003.

Night’s opening hour saw the Eye’s “NCIS” (prelim 3.9/9 in 18-49, 17.5 million) place second to “Idol,” up a nifty 26% in 18-49 vs. the same night a year ago when “Idol” bowed. The WB’s “Gilmore Girls” also shined (prelim 2.4/6, 5.5 million), ranking second in persons 12-34 (3.7/9).

NBC’s “Fear Factor” was not a factor against “Idol,” falling to easily its lowest firstrun scores to date (prelim 1.8/4, 4.4 million). Despite the rough start, “Scrubs” (prelim 2.9/6, 6 million) was up vs. the same night a year ago, and “Law & Order: SVU” (prelim 5.9/14, 16 million) easily won at 10.

ABC’s “Commander in Chief” continued its descent (prelim 2.5/5 in 18-49, 10.8 million), but “Boston Legal” held up pretty well at 10 (prelim 3.3/8, 11.8 million).

(Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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