Fox's hit show down 15% in demo

The beat goes on for Fox’s “American Idol,” the megahit music competish that returned for its eighth year Tuesday, delivering the season’s biggest numbers by a wide margin.

“Idol’s” preem ratings may have dipped — most noticeably among young adults — but it’s hard to dis a show that can draw 30 million-plus voters in an age of ever-increasing media choices and growing use of digital video recorders.

Tuesday’s opener repped the lowest demo score for an “Idol” preem since the show bowed in summer 2002, while its total viewership is the lowest for an opener in five years.

“We’re relieved but not satisfied,” Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Liguori said of the “Idol” performance. “You go into these planning for the worst and hoping for the best. And you look at the overall broadcast viewership and ‘Idol’ is No. 1.”

But, Liguori admitted, the numbers were “clearly not where we want them to be,” particularly with women and younger viewers.

According to Nielsen estimates that include same-night DVR playback, the two-hour preem of “Idol” averaged a huge 11.7 rating/28 share in adults 18-49 and 30.42 million viewers overall.

The previous high for an entertainment telecast this season was a 7.4/18 in 18-49 for ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” season premiere and 23.5 million viewers overall for the season opener of “CSI” on CBS. Fox notes that “Idol’s” advantage over the top series in 18-49 (57%) was actually up over last year’s 55% advantage.

Still, “Idol” was down 9% in total viewership vs. last year, when it opened to 33.42 million viewers.

And bigger declines came in key demo groups, as the “Idol” audience has aged with the show. The median age for Tuesday’s opener was 40.3 — still younger than most of today’s broadcast hits but considerably older than the 30-range the show saw for its first two seasons.

Among adults 18-49, the premiere of “Idol” was off 15% from last year (11.7/28 vs. 13.8/32) and an even steeper 24% in adults 18-34 (9.8/26 vs. 12.9/33). The falloffs were smallest among adults 25-54 (down 10%) and adults 50-plus (down 2%).

“There’s an inevitability (of erosion) as the young demos are now so spread out,” Liguori said. “It’s incredibly difficult to reach that audience. And broadcasts tend to get older over time.”

Liguori said he still believed “the show is hip” and noted that several leading superstars in pop music are “Idol” alums. He also said he believed some of the show’s tweaks, such as spending more time on the Hollywood episodes and reinstituting a wild card round, will pay dividends down the line.

Positive reviews, the introduction of a fourth judge (songwriter Kara DioGuardi) and the show’s more positive tone this season may also help spur word of mouth and viewer tune-in, he added.

“It’s a sigh of relief,” he said. “We’ve got an optimistic view of our future episodes.”

Going forward, “Idol” will look to avoid the midseason sag it experienced between a strong start and finish in the Nielsens. “The bellwether will be looking at the decline between episode one and episode two,” Liguori said. “Last year it was down about 10%.”

The competish appears to have reason to feel a little better about taking on “Idol” this season. One year after the “Idol” preem beat ABC, CBS, NBC and CW combined by 12 shares in 18-49 (32 to 20), Fox’s advantage was trimmed to 3 shares (28 to 25).

CBS, which has been winning Tuesdays with its hot drama duo of “NCIS” and “The Mentalist,” held up very well in the face of “Idol,” retaining 95% or more of its week-earlier averages in various categories.

“NCIS” (3.7/9 in 18-49, 18.62m) was up by 23% in 18-49 vs. its performance opposite the “Idol” premiere a year ago, and “The Mentalist” surged by 50% over the net’s delivery in the 9 o’clock hour a year ago with an original miniseries.

At NBC, “The Biggest Loser 7” (3.3/8 in 18-49, 8.86m) was down sharply from its record-setting preem one week ago but came in 10% above its performance opposite “Idol” last year.

And ABC’s combo of “Homeland Security USA” (1.8/5 in 18-49, 6.04m) and laffer “Scrubs” (2.2/5 in 18-49, 4.5 million for its two original segs) may have been down sharply vs. the shows’ premiere scores of a week ago, but they provided the network with healthy gains over last year’s weak combo of “Just for Laughs,” “According to Jim” and “Carpoolers.”

CW’s “90210” (1.1/3 in 18-49, 2.18m) and “Privileged” (0.5/1 in 18-49, 1.12m) were both down by double digits vs. last week, with the net coming in below its average of the same night in 2008. Still, “90210” performed well enough opposite what figures to be the biggest “Idol” night of the season to possibly stay put on Tuesdays.

Overall, Fox’s four broadcast network rivals combined for a 10.0 rating/25 share on the night, up 18% vs. their showing opposite the “Idol” bow a year ago (8.5/20).

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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