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‘Idol’ worship surprises

Show a ratings hit despite loss of Cowell

Simon who?

If you asked Fox last May how they thought this season of “American Idol” — the show’s tenth — would fare without star Simon Cowell, execs might have put on a brave face. After all, “Idol” seemed to be veering toward becoming nearly ordinary in comparison to its former self.

Case in point: In season nine, “Idol” averaged a 8.9 rating/23 share in the all-important 18-49 demo, down noticeably from season eight (9.8/25). In total viewers, the reality giant dropped from 26.6 million total viewers to 24.3 million.

“Let’s be honest, we did not have a great season last year,” said Fox reality topper Mike Darnell. “You read 100 articles that the show is going to collapse and you have great concerns.”

Yet, through eight weeks, “Idol” has, at minimum, stopped the slide. While many thought the show would continue to tumble, “Idol” is faring just fine. Right now, it is slightly down in the demo (8.6) and up a notch in total viewers (24.7 million), according to Nielsen.

There are several theories why “Idol” has held up so well, but may- be none more important than the new personalities at the judges table.

Sure, Cowell was always the marquee name, but he was clearly bored in his last few seasons, and that apathy was perceived by viewers. The addition of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler has brought a spark to the show that neither Ellen DeGeneres nor Kara DioGuardi was able to generate.

Tyler, a rock icon as the lead singer for Aerosmith, and Lopez are viewing contestants through a fresh pair of eyes, and their enthusiasm appears to be rubbing off.

“We couldn’t have asked them to be better,” said “Idol” exec producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz. “You can see they care and are hugely passionate. If they didn’t care, the viewers wouldn’t care.”

That said, some observers have suggested Tyler and Lopez have been too kind to contestants, and as the competition moves along, they will have to be more critical. For now, longtime judge Randy Jackson has often been the dissenting voice when a performance has otherwise been praised.

Darnell said of Tyler and Lopez: “They’re critical in their own way. Their criticism comes in the form of disappointment.”

Then there’s the contestants themselves. The consensus is that this season’s vocalists are some of the best the show has seen in years. At this point in the competition — compared to past seasons — it would be nearly impossible to predict who will win or even be among the final pair.

“We didn’t have a good batch of contestants last year,” Frot-Coutaz admitted. “Those kids were more of an indie music segment, and that doesn’t translate well to television.”

“Last year’s group wasn’t terrible, but there was no excitement,” said Richard Rushfield, author of “American Idol: The Untold Story.” “It looked like the kids were forced into it.”

When “Idol” moved to Wednesday and Thursday this season, some speculated it might lose viewers to “Survivor” and “The Big Bang Theory,” two of CBS’ more popular shows, but that hasn’t been the case. The overall numbers indicate more viewers are coming to broadcast those nights, rather than one show taking away a big chunk from another.

The Eye will offer the NCAA basketball tournament this Thursday. A portion of “Idol’s” male aud may shift to hoops and cut into Fox’s totals for the 8 o’clock hour.

But even if basketball takes away a few million, Fox won’t likely complain. At this point, “Idol” could continue for another five, possibly 10 years.

Clearly, that kind of profit flow is music to the ears of Rupert Murdoch and everyone at the network.

“I think the format of ‘Idol’ is almost eternal,” Rushfield said. “This season — from the judges to the production — there’s just been a lot of energy on the show. Fox has to be amazed it has gone as well as it has.”