‘Idol’ worship cools

Fox hit sees ratings dip

The May sweep starts Thursday, but the nets aren’t exactly in a mad dash to reach the starting line.

Ratings are down for the hit shows that recently returned to action for the first time since the writers strike, and they’re also off for some established reality skeins that have been unable to take advantage of softer competish. That list includes Fox’s “American Idol,” whose year-to-year declines have accelerated of late.

Certainly “Idol” heads into the final month of the season as television’s biggest draw by a wide margin, but there are clear indications — Fox’s rivals would probably say, “Finally!” — that the show has peaked and should expect to see mortal-like ratings erosion in years ahead.

When the work stoppage sidelined primetime’s biggest scripted hits in the winter, most assumed it would be smooth sailing for Fox’s megahit singing competition — but that hasn’t been the case.

After defying the odds by improving its ratings for four straight years, “Idol” is headed for a second season of declines, with this year’s falloffs more pronounced. The “American Idol” audience profile continues to change, too, as more of its viewers age out of the 18-49 bracket at the same time that the show struggles to add younger viewers who will mature into the advertiser-friendly demo.

“This is not a show that’s broken,” insisted Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman. “Its core audience has aged, but it’s following the pattern of evolution of every hit TV show to last this long.”

Nielsen data through last week shows that installments of “American Idol” on its regular nights of Tuesday and Wednesday are averaging 28.9 million viewers — down 8% from the 31.3 million it was pulling in a year ago at this point.

While this isn’t a bad year-to-year dropoff for a 6-year-old show, a closer look at key demos paint a somewhat more ominous trend.

“Idol” has declined by a slightly bigger 10% in the adults 18-49 demo (11.4 rating vs. 12.7 rating) and by a troubling 15% in adults 18-34 (9.6 vs. 11.3). It’s also off by 12% in teens 12-17 (7.9 vs. 9.0) and by a big 20% in kids 2-11 (5.9 vs. 7.4).

Excluding its debut season in summer 2002, this year’s seventh edition of “Idol” is tracking to post the show’s lowest average rating in teens 12-17 and adults 18-34 and its second lowest in kids 2-11. It’s holding up better in older categories: This season could still finish as the show’s third best in 18-49 and 25-54 and its best among viewers 50-plus, where this year “Idol” is roughly flat vs. last season.

The median age of the “American Idol” viewer has grown from 40.1 last year to 42.0 this year. It has now risen with each annual edition since 2002, when half of its audience was under 32.

Still, at a relatively spry median age of 42, “Idol” is considerably younger than most primetime shows (“Dancing With the Stars” is about 55, for example; “Survivor” is 47; and top scripted skein “Grey’s Anatomy” is 44). But there are now nine primetime programs on the Big Four (all airing either on Fox or NBC) that skew younger, as does all of the CW sked.

Possible reasons for the show’s decline in popularity include its ubiquity (perfs are available on other outlets) and more episodes during daylight saving time (whose start shifted from April to March last year).

But there’s also the writers strike.

“When it came on (this season), the thought was that the strike was going to be good for ‘Idol,’ but people weren’t going to start watching this show because of a writers strike,” Beckman said.

“It’s faced almost double the number of unscripted programs as in previous seasons,” he added. “And though none have done huge against it, it’s going to have an impact.”

Sure enough, shows like “The Biggest Loser” on NBC and “Dancing With the Stars” on ABC, or even smaller ratings performers like “Big Brother” on CBS and “America’s Next Top Model” on CW, have chipped away at what has always been “American Idol’s” wheelhouse: young women.

While men 18-34 have watched in nearly the same number as a year ago, the women 18-34 audience for “Idol” has plunged by 19%.

Not having firstrun hit dramas “House” or “24” on the Fox sked, another result of the writers strike, has also contributed to the declines. Even a monster smash like “Idol” could use the promotional boost offered by a full primetime network slate.

Looking forward, Metcalf is bullish that “Idol” can reverse its downward trend in upcoming years.

“Our goal is to find what are the things that can bring people back, to keep people from fast-forwarding,” he said. “I really believe that with the right competition, you can still see some growth with this show.”

* * *

The two editions of “American Idol” carried Fox to another ratings victory last week, with the net prevailing for the 15th consecutive frame in adults 18-49. Its 3.2 rating/9 share was well ahead of second-place NBC (2.4/7), with ABC and CBS (both 2.3/7) right behind the Peacock.

Fox also led in adults 25-54 (3.6/9) and total viewers (8.75 million).

Tuesday’s seg of “Idol” (8.8/23 in 18-49, 23.65m) tied with Wednesday’s result show (8.8/22, 23.34m) as the week’s top-rated program in 18-49. However, the Tuesday performance seg was the lowest-rated in five years among 18-49ers, while Wednesday’s results show drew “Idol’s” smallest in-season 18-34 crowd ever.

Other highlights for the week included NBC weight-loss skein “Biggest Loser 5” (4.4/11 in 18-49, 11.39m), which went out a winner (Daily Variety, April 17).

The Peacock also scored with “The Office” (5.0/13 in 18-49, 9.86m), which drew its largest overall aud of the season. It was the week’s No. 1 program among men 18-34 (5.7/17).

At CBS, Monday comedy “Two and a Half Men” was the week’s No. 2 scripted show in 18-49 (5.3/13, 13.94m), and that led in to the solid return of laffer “Rules of Engagement” (4.1/10, 10.40m). Other standouts included “Survivor” (3.9/12, 12.01m) and “CSI: NY” (3.9/10, 13.43m).

ABC was led by “Desperate Housewives” (5.5/13, 15.75m) and “Dancing With the Stars” (4.1/11, 17.20m), but was slowed by seventh-place finishes in the 8 o’clock hour on Thursday and Friday with repeats of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” respectively.

With “Pasion” (Passion) picking up steam near the end of its run, Univision moved up to No. 2 in 18-34 (1.8/6).

CW was paced by “America’s Next Top Model” (1.9/6, 3.85m) and “One Tree Hill” (1.4/3, 2.80m), but the net placed sixth in 18-34 (1.0/3).

On Monday of the current week, though, CW had reason to be pleased with the firstrun return of “Gossip Girl” (1.3/4 in 18-49, 2.50m). Heavily promoted drama delivered the third best demo score of the 14 episodes to air in its rookie season, earning a 2.0/6 in adults 18-34 — a 25% gain over its prior firstrun average, when it aired on Wednesdays behind “Top Model.”

Top cable performers of the week in young adults were MTV’s “The Hills” (2.5/6 in 18-49, 3.96m) and VH1’s “Rock of Love 2” reunion (2.4/6, 4.03m), while the most-watched scripted show on cable was Saturday’s 9 o’clock repeat seg of “NCIS” on USA, which bagged 4.06 million viewers — nearly as many as the crime repeats on CBS and NBC in the hour.

USA led the network race, winning in 18-49, 25-54 and total viewers. TBS had the last laugh in 18-34.

ABC Family scored Sunday with original movie “Princess,” which drew the largest overall aud (3 million) and the second-best female demos of any cable entertainment program on the night. And Lifetime was the top cable net among women 18-49 on Saturday with original pic “Love Girl,” which averaged 2.44 million viewers.

And Cartoon Network saw best-ever series debut numbers for Friday’s “Ben 10: Alien Force” (2.89 million) — the day’s top-rated program (broadcast or cable) among kids 9-14 and boys 2-11.

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