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Does ‘American Idol’ Ebb Mean Music’s Over for Fox?

The season-to-date primetime rankings may tell a different story, but there’s no question Fox is limping to the finish of the 2013-14 television season.

After good audience response to newcomer “Sleepy Hollow” in the fall, Fox’s start to 2014 was rocky. Reality kingpin “American Idol” took a tumble, and the net’s most promising new shows in recent years, comedy (“New Girl”) and drama (“The Following”), have been placing fourth in their timeslots.

Fox is not alone in its struggles — and next month’s return of “24” should give it a boost — but this is the time of year when, during “Idol’s” heyday, Fox typically dominated and opened up some distance on its rivals. And that’s what makes the net’s performance last month especially eye-opening.

During March, a clean four-week period with no major awards shows or dominant sports programming, Fox placed fourth among adults 18-49 all four weeks. In Nielsen’s “most current” ratings, which include two weeks of seven-day DVR playback, the network’s average rating of 1.6 (a 30% decline from last year) trailed CBS (2.1), ABC (2.0) and NBC (1.9).

Fox has now placed fourth for six consecutive weeks but it still isn’t in danger of falling below second place for the season; that’s because it aired both the Super Bowl and NFC Championship games in primetime this season. If you take sports out of the equation, the net’s in fourth place — a tick behind ABC and three-tenths behind both a rising NBC and declining CBS.

In years past, “American Idol” was capable of erasing all of Fox’s sins. But now the music competition is struggling at the same time other Fox programs have hit the skids.

Through March, “American Idol” was averaging a 3.8 rating in adults 18-49, and 13.2 million viewers overall for its two-hour Wednesday performance show — still pretty good numbers, especially for a series in its 13th year. But the numbers represent declines of 25% and 17%, respectively, vs. last year. And while this marks the third straight season “Idol” has lost 20% or more of its young-adult audience, this year’s dropoff has had a more meaningful effect on its status as one of TV’s top-rated (and most feared) programs.

Series airing on the competition, including “Survivor” and “Criminal Minds” on CBS and “Modern Family” and “The Middle” on ABC, have broken through with ratings firsts opposite “Idol” this season, and the music contest has been kept out of the weekly top 10 (or even 15) in most recent weeks.

But it’s hardly just the “Idol” nights of Wednesday and Thursday that are hurting Fox; the net was down in March by 25% or more on Monday, Tuesday and Friday.

As the youngest-skewing major network, Fox would seem to be more vulnerable to DVR time-shifting. But even when looking at L+7 numbers for original episodes, “The Following,” “New Girl” and “Glee” are all down 20% or more this season. Vets like “Family Guy,” “Bones” and “The Simpsons” are holding up better, but they’re hardly a long-term growth solution.

Fox renewed a bunch of marginally rated shows for next season, but it will need some familiar pieces in a fall where the recent cancellation of “The X Factor” due to low ratings means the net will need to fill three additional hours.

Still, if there’s one upside to the decline of Fox’s music contests, it’s that it may be the impetus the network needs for a creative kickstart.

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