But for marketers looking to get a piece of the biggest branded event of the year, "Idol" hasn't lost any cache. Several buyers confirmed a 30-second spot for the finale will cost around $1.3 million, the same price ads went for in last year's finale.
"In spite of some decline in ratings, ['Idol'] still is just a powerhouse," said Harry Keeshan, exec VP-director of national broadcast at PHD, whose client Old Navy is on board for tonight's season-ender. "For any advertiser, you get a quality rating like this and the buzz this show brings is a home run."
ABC battles with 'Lost'
Going up against the "Idol" finale is also still a point of fear for the other networks, with a "Saturday Night Live" clip show scheduled for NBC and "NCIS" and "Criminal Minds" repeats lined up on CBS. Only ABC is confident enough to put new programming against the juggernaut, with a two-hour season finale of "Lost" set to do battle against "Idol" tonight.
The "Idol" season premiere and finale have traditionally been among the strongest episodes for Fox: This year's opener set a January ratings record and last year's finale attracted 37 million total viewers, up 21% from season four, according to Nielsen Media Research. But a lack of compelling contestants on par with quirky Taylor Hicks or country comfort Carrie Underwood may work against tonight's big showdown.
It's worth noting "House," the music contest's 9 p.m. companion on Tuesday nights, has tied and even improved on its "Idol" lead-in in recent weeks, posting a 9.3 share among viewers 18 to 49 on May 15; the "Idol" share that night was only 8.9.
Don't expect a ratings drop
Lisa Quan, VP-director of audience analysis at Magna Global, said this season's contestant Sanjaya was the show's last chance to turn controversy into surprising ratings, but doesn't see any major drop-offs in store, either.
"Hopefully they'll be able to hold on to their audience for the next go-round," Ms. Quan said. "It really makes Fox in January. The program is five years old now, so it's bound to have some decline. ... Not that many programs are ever going to keep growing for seven, even 10 years. Even 'Seinfeld' lost some viewers toward the end. Decline happens eventually."