Auds still worship at the foot of ‘Idol’

Fourth season preem attracts 33.57 million viewers

So much for those suggestions of a ratings dropoff: Fox’s “American Idol” is back bigger than ever.

The fourth edition of the music talent show opened with eye-popping numbers Tuesday night, including the highest young-adult rating and largest overall audience for any primetime telecast this season.

Many in the industry, including even Fox Entertainment topper Gail Berman, had forecast ratings declines this go-round for the “Idol” phenomenon that began in the summer of 2002.

But that’s far from the case so far, which is great news for Fox as it once again looks to “Idol” as a springboard for a strong second-half perf after entering January deep in fourth place.

“It confirms what a phenomenon this show is,” Berman told Daily Variety. “People were waiting for it, more than I ever could have believed.”

Exec said Fox’s strategy of showing restraint by not airing “Idol” in the fall has paid off, even though “it costs us dearly.”

Berman first got a hint of how big the fourth “Idol” would be during a 5 a.m. PST conference call with her New York ratings researchers. The early results from the metered markets, however, couldn’t fully capture just how dominant the show would be.

Tuesday’s two-hour audition seg, in which judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson rolled their eyes and hurled insults at some of the more vocally challenged wannabe singers, averaged a huge 14.0 rating/33 share in adults 18-49 and 33.57 million viewers overall — up 9% in the demo vs. last year’s boffo bow.

It marked the third best night of entertainment programming in Fox’s history, with the net estimating nearly 54 million people watched at least some of Tuesday’s telecast.

Fox launched a massive promo campaign to hype “Idol’s” return, even giving employees at the net and its affils car kits featuring “Idol” magnets and flags. (Yes, Berman’s car is decked out with an “Idol” flag.)

Berman and other Fox execs also made sure to manage expectations, admitting to journos that they expected the show to suffer some ratings erosion.

“Gail underplayed it pretty well,” Viacom co-prexy/co-chief operating officer Leslie Moonves quipped Wednesday during a session with scribes at UPN’s portion of the TV Critics Assn. winter press tour. “I’m sure there’s happiness today on Pico Boulevard.”

Berman, however, said she was truly stunned by the final numbers. “Who could have predicted growth? It would have been impossible to expect it,” she said.

News even may have surprised Donald Trump, who, per Berman, called Cowell to congratulate him on the numbers; Cowell hadn’t known how “Idol” had done until Trump told him.

Berman also predicted “Idol” would follow its usual pattern and start to drop in the ratings before ramping up again as May’s finale approaches.

At other nets, the mood was somewhat gloomy. One insider at a rival said, “It’s not so happy here today.”

“Idol” will regularly air from 8 to 9 on Tuesdays, followed by new drama “House,” one of the programs Fox is hoping will benefit from having “Idol” on the air. New spooky drama “Point Pleasant” got a special post-“Idol” preview Wednesday night before sliding into its regular Thursday-at-9 berth tonight.

After “Idol” went off the air at 10, NBC rose up to easily win primetime’s final hour with “Law & Order: SVU” (5.9/15 in 18-49, 15.34m) over drama rivals “Judging Amy” on CBS (3.2/8 in 18-49, 11.53m) and “NYPD Blue” on ABC (3.2/8, 9.00m).

Elsewhere, the competish drooped opposite “Idol” from 8 to 10, with top performers including CBS’ “Amazing Race” (4.1/9 in 18-49, 10.61m) and “NCIS” (3.1/8 in 18-49, 14.58m), ABC’s “According to Jim” (3.3/7 in 18-49, 9.11m) and NBC’s “Biggest Loser” (3.2/8 in 18-49, 8.26m).

Peacock’s comedy block of “Scrubs” (2.6/6 in 18-49, 6.52m) and the new “Committed” (2.1/5, 5.67m) was hit especially hard. Latter had looked solid in its first few airings and will look to rebound next week.