MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Fox's "American Idol" returned for its eighth season last night and the ratings results were a metaphor for the medium itself: "Idol," like network TV, still packs the most media impact, but faces accelerating audience attrition. Down 15% in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic from its season premiere last year and 26% from season six in 2006, the 11.7/28 rating and share still dominated the night, as Fox's nearest network competition was CBS, which delivered a second place 3.5/9. NBC was a close third with a 3.4/8, followed by ABC (2.3/6) and the CW (0.8/2).
'Mentalist' on a roll
Of course, one night does not a season make: "Idol" could come back strong tonight, or next month once more casual fans check in when the singers go to later rounds in Hollywood. And even if network TV wasn't facing fracturing and fragmenting audiences, "Idol's" erosion is reflective of its tenure, as even the most successful series start to fade at about season five. Considering this, what's most remarkable about the ratings for "Idol" is how high they've remained.
Still, they weren't strong enough to slow a newer hit, CBS's "The Mentalist," which was slightly above its season-to-date average with a 3.8/9. "The Mentalist's" ability to stay even with its previous average despite the demographic juggernaut of "American Idol" is indicative of how CBS has the most ratings resilience against the Fox mega-hit is partially based on its more-mature audience profile. The same factor worked for its lead-in "NCIS," which also held its average with a 3.7/9.
Conversely, the younger, female-focused lineup on The CW seemed to get hit the hardest, as "90210" (1.1/3) and "Privileged" (0.5/1) were off 39% and 44%, respectively.
And ABC and NBC didn't emerge unscathed, but it's difficult to discern if each lost viewers directly to "American Idol" or if their shows simply faded after their season premieres (NBC's "Biggest Loser," down 27% to a 3.3/8), series premieres (ABC's "Homeland Security USA," off 22% to a 1.8/5) or network premieres ("Scrubs," formerly of NBC and now on ABC, which was off 29% and 31% for two 2.2/5 rated episodes).
With "Idol" idle at 10 p.m., the traditional Big Three, probably relieved to get out of the way of the pop-culture phenomenon, ran shows that were indicative of a previous era, before network TV had such keen competition. NBC's won the hour with "Law and Order: SVU" (3.6/9), which premiered a decade ago as a spin-off of a show whose genesis was a generation ago, 1990's "Law and Order." ABC countered with "Primetime: What Would You Do" (2.8/7), the latest derivation of its "Primetime Live" newsmagazine which first appeared in 1989. And although CBS's "Without a Trace" (2.9/7) was first found in 2002, it's part of a long line of police procedurals spawned by 2000's "CSI" on CBS that theme the network throughout the week.
"SVU," "Primetime" and "Trace" each generally held their original episode average (although given their TV tenure, all three would be hard pressed to be considered "original"). But like network TV itself -- and the night's winner, "American Idol" -- all three 10 p.m. shows remain big brand names, albeit playing to a smaller audience.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Wednesday: Perhaps at no time has the country really needed a good laugh like it does now. PBS gives it a shot with "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America," which profiles Harold Lloyd, Bob Hope and Steve Martin.
Thursday: It's nearly the end of the Bush presidency, which may make some feel nostalgic and others nasty. At any rate, it will be interesting to see what he says on his farewell address, which runs at 8 p.m.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Ratings for the second night of "Idol" confirm whether the double-digits decline for night one was a fluke or a trend.
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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.) John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.