POSTED BY STUART LEVINE

Fox is one Sanjaya away from bringing "American Idol" back to its former glory.

That’s not to say that "Idol" has fallen off the map and is barely breathing. It remains the 800-lb. gorilla that other networks fear when Fox puts it on the schedule every January. It grabs headlines, magazine covers, gossip columns and gobs of Internet chatter.

But, no matter how you spin it, ratings were down last season from the Taylor Hicks-Katharine McPhee season before that, and the finale in which Jordin Sparks was crowned champ, especially, took a big dip in both numbers and viewer engagement.

Fox entertainment chairman Peter Liguori said at TCA the viewer totals weren’t as bad when you account for those who watched the finale on TiVo, and that the right contestant — a heartthrob, hottie, troublemaker or anyone that can rally the masses in either a love/hate way — can draw huge attention can spike the ratings in a big way.

"We’re one watercooler contestant away from another surge," Liguori said. "There’s still a feeling about an upcoming ‘Idol’ season."

Fox needs "Idol" to continue to dominate. Dating back to January, the network has now won 24 straight weeks in the 18-49 demo and is about to break a 25-week record set by NBC in 1996, but October through December has always been problematic for the network — shows either being interrupted by the baseball playoffs and/or not connecting at all. "Prison Break" and "Bones" have come out of the game strong but even "House" started slow and needed the post-"Idol" timeslot to give it a kickstart.

"We have to do better in the fourth quarter," Liguori said bluntly. "We have the biggest show on TV and have to take advantage of that."

The beginning of 2008 should be huge for Fox, with "Idol" and "24" starting up, but, as if they needed it, the nework will air the NFC championship game in January and Super Bowl in February, with "House" landing the plum-Super Bowl slot.

Whether the Kelsey Grammer-Patricia Heaton comedy "Back to You" or Anthony Anderson New Orleans-based "K-Ville" catch on remain to be seen, but at some point Fox will have to find other shows to give it year-round consistency, rather than just relying on "Idol" adulation.

– Stuart Levine

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