'NCIS' was strongest counter-programming

The heat is turned back up for TV’s No. 1 show.

Fox’s “American Idol,” likely boosted by this week’s news that Simon Cowell will step down from the show after this season, attracted a whopping 30 million viewers in its two-hour season opener Tuesday. The show’s debut was strong enough to break its two-year trend of declining viewership since its peak in 2007, and “Idol” opened up an even bigger advantage over its combined broadcast competish.

In addition to the Cowell news, “Idol” has made headlines with the decision to replace original judge Paula Abdul with Ellen DeGeneres this season — although DeGeneres won’t appear until next month.

Mike Darnell, Fox’s prexy of alternative entertainment programming, admitted to being “excited and relieved” that the show came back so strong, particularly with younger demos. The swirl of media coverage of Cowell’s decision to step down to focus on the launch of “The X Factor,” a new talent show for Fox, “certainly didn’t hurt,” Darnell said.

There’s a lot of organic excitement to the show this year, and maybe it brought some people back,” he said. “To do this kind of number in season nine is an amazing achievement.”

Nielsen estimates that Tuesday’s preem averaged an 11.8 rating/29 share in adults 18-49 and 29.94 million viewers overall, up slightly in the demo (from 11.7/28) and down a tad in total viewers (30.45 million) vs. last year. It’s the highest-rated entertainment program of the season (nothing else has earned a 7.0 “same-day” demo rating or more than 21.4 million viewers) and tied with last Saturday’s NFL Wild Card playoff game between Dallas and Philadelphia on NBC as the top telecast overall in 18-49.

It also matches the highest 18-49 rating for any series telecast since “Idol” earned a 12.3 in February 2008.

Perhaps the best ratings news in the premiere for “Idol” may have been its youthful skew. While the show was up 1% in 18-49 and down 2% in adults 25-54 vs. last season, it grew up by 9% in 18-34 (10.7/30 vs. 9.8/26).

As a result, after maturing to a seasonlong median age of 42-plus last season, “Idol” bowed at 40.4 on Tuesday.

From 8 to 10 p.m., “Idol” beat its combined ABC-CBS-NBC competition by 51% in adults 18-49 (up from 29% a year ago) and by 73% in adults 18-34 (up from 42%).

The best performer opposite the megahit was CBS drama vet “NCIS” (4.3/11 in 18-49, 20.85m), which was in line with its season average and rose 16% above its perf on the night “Idol” bowed last year. At 9, though, “NCIS: Los Angeles” (3.0/7, 15.60m) hit a firstrun demo low and came in below last year’s hot rookie “The Mentalist.”

At NBC, “The Biggest Loser” (3.2/8, 8.12m) was below average but down just a tick from its perf of last year.

It was ABC that took the biggest tumble, as its combo of comedies “Scrubs” and “Better Off Ted” averaged a 0.9 rating in 18-49 from 8 to 10 p.m., less than half of what the net earned in the time period a year ago with “Scrubs” and unscripted series “Homeland Security USA.”

Ratings observers will keep a close eye on the numbers in coming weeks to see if “Idol” can continue to stay above its year-ago ratings level. Show tends to see its best numbers in premiere week and sags some at midseason before bouncing back with its finale in May.

DeGeneres debuts on Feb. 9 and the show soon thereafter goes up against the Winter Olympics on NBC, so it may take a while to gauge its ratings strength in a season of so much change.

Meanwhile, NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” was on the rise Tuesday amid the latenight madness surrounding the program and its possible shift to a later starting time. “Tonight” averaged a 1.7 rating in 18-49 in Nielsen’s 25 markets with local people-meters shows — up from the 1.2 rating it earned the previous night and well ahead of “Late Show With David Letterman” on CBS (0.9 rating).

And of note in cable, TNT’s premiere of former NBC cop drama “Southland” averaged 1.98 million viewers at 10 p.m., airing behind a repeat of “Bones” that averaged 1.60 million.

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