If only the ongoing writers strike wasn't casting a long shadow over the broadcast universe, Fox might be able to celebrate a full-hearted victory. But it's tough to make an industry wake feel like a party.
The seventh season of "Idol" opened to a 13.8 rating last week and pulled in 33.2 million average viewers -- down a little more than 10% from recent years, yet still easily breaking every other record set by every other show this season. The second episode was down more, about 19% in the demo.
Then you add in the mitigating factors: It's the seventh season of a reality show. Increased DVR use. Slightly lower viewership levels in recent weeks, likely due to the strike.
Most important, "Idol" is a show with enough viewers so that it's next episodes could endure two more 20% ratings drops and still easily win any broadcast network series.
What a problem to have
"Fox has a problem every network wishes they had," said John Rash, senior VP-director of media negotiations at Campbell Mithun. "'Idol' is experiencing erosion similar to other seminal series, in that no matter how strong it is, there's enviable erosion beginning around season five."
Except "similar to other series" has rarely described "American Idol."
"Idol" has consistently distinguished itself by seeming almost supernatural in its appeal and longevity. Last year, the first chips in its armor appeared, when the show went from a series-high premiere to consistently averaging less than the previous season. Observers were unsure if the numbers reflected a temporary lack of high-appeal performers or were the first signs of a downward trend.
With this season's ratings dropping off, it seems "Idol" may be mortal after all.
Competitors were even able to get a slightly better grip on competitive time periods. Typically only CBS's scripted procedurals, which skew much older than "Idol," can withstand the show's dominance. But on Tuesday, NBC's "Biggest Loser" lost a third of its viewership, yet still matched an original episode of CBS's "NCIS" (both 3.0) to dramatically improve its repeat-filled time period vs. last year.
On Wednesday, ABC's "Wife Swap" and "Supernanny" were also down 30%, yet up 16% compared to how they performed against "Idol" previously. NBC's "Deal or No Deal" (3.1), whose "Million Dollar Mission" sweeps-style programming stunt continues to reap dividends, was down 14% for the week yet up a steep 41% compared to last year.
Given how unpredictable this season has been, Fox executives say they are pleased with the returns.
"'Idol' continues to do things that astonish," said Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori. "In a year where only two shows broke a 20 share, this is miraculous. I've seen all the talent that we have and the show is going to reach incredible heights during the competition. The best is yet to come."
Fox has good reason for continued confidence this season. Unless there's a mass exodus of "Idol" viewers, its tough to mathematically find any way for a competitor to win with the current strike schedules.
Last week, Fox slipped into first place season to date, earning a 3.4 average rating compared to its major broadcast competitors, tied at a 3.3. It was the earliest Fox has moved into first place in the past three years, which is partly a credit to its fourth-quarter strategy that kept the network from having to jump-start from a distant fourth place this month.
"It's not just about where we are, but how we got here," Mr. Liguori said. "It was a triumph of scheduling and creative."
The network's scripted drama "Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles" also got off to a great start due to a football lead-in last week, then fell sharply to a still-solid 4.2 rating last week. Given that the series built on "Prison Break," Fox is hopeful the program can maintain a respectable audience.
On Wednesday, Fox debuts its lie-detector game show "The Moment of Truth," which is expected to receive some significant initial tune-in with its post-"Idol" time period.
"It's old-time Fox," Mr. Liguori said of "Truth." "I will not be watching that show with my wife in the same room because the one thing I don't want my wife asking is, 'What's your answer to that question?'"
Fox isn't sending a review copy of the show to critics, but the network is prepared to hear a certain amount of oh-the-humanity blowback after the program airs.
"The intent is to reveal a person's honest feelings," Mr. Liguori said. "The intent is not 'Let's go rip up this family.' But it is wild because the contestant are asked these questions before they go on stage, then they go in front of millions knowing those questions are coming their way."
In February, Fox has the Super Bowl, which will be infused with "Idol" talent (Ryan Seacrest hosting a red carpet; a music video debut from Paula Abdul).
In April, competition reality series "Hell's Kitchen" will receive its first in-season slot. Given the show's popularity has grown each summer and that Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares" made in-roads with viewers this fall, "Hell's Kitchen" is poised to make a strong showing in a post-"Idol" time period.
Mourning loss of shows
Still, ad buyers are mourning the loss of "House" and "24," both shut down due to the strike. Their absence sounds an increasingly worrisome note with ad buyers.
"[Fox's seasonal standing is] a laudable accomplishment," Mr. Rash said. "But it's done in the shadow of a writers strike that threatens to dramatically effect non-reality TV viewing."
Agreed Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Carat: "We're not worried about 'Idol' [ratings erosion]. We want to know what's going to happen toward the balance of the season. We want to know about the new shows for fall. A 'Bachelorette' is no substitute for a 'Grey's Anatomy.'"
By and large, ad buyers value scripted programming over reality since it tends to attract more affluent viewers. Sources say that whatever network wins the 2007-08 season, it's quickly becoming a Pyrrhic victory if the broadcast season -- and possibly much of next season as well -- is left in tatters.
"We should hook the writers and [the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] up to a polygraph," Ms. Brill said. "That's the 'moment of truth' I'd like to see."
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James Hibberd is a senior editor for TV Week.