Jury's out on Change of 'Idol' Judges

Rash Report: Tuesday Premiere Up, Wednesday Down, but Fox Mega-hit Still Dominates

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- While catching cultural lightning in a bottle is far more art than science, surely one of the secrets of success for Fox's "American Idol" is that it basically has two sets of characters: the contestants and the judges.

It's all about the judges.
It's all about the judges. Credit: Fox
The contestants have been more memorable than those on most other reality shows, as many have gone on to have musical careers based on real talent. So while CBS's "Survivor" has Richard Hatch, who was famous for winning the first "Survivor," "Idol" has Carrie Underwood, famous for winning "Idol," and then winning Grammy, CMA and ACMA Awards.

But the judges have been memorable, too, with Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell being characters -- and at times caricatures -- in their own right. Indeed, "Idol's" idle period was all about Paula leaving, Simon set to leave and Ellen DeGeneres about to arrive.

With it far too early for any "Idol" contestants to start to stand out, it's all about the judges. And based on this year's Tuesday and Wednesday premieres, it seems a split verdict from viewers.

Tuesday started strong, with the ad-centric adult 18-49 delivery actually up a 10th of a ratings point from episode one last year. But Wednesday reversed that trend, as the 10.1/27 rating and share had 14% fewer viewers than last year.

Of course, it's not clear if that means Tuesday's viewers tuned in, missed Paula, wondered how Ellen turned into Posh Spice (Victoria Beckham, who sat in Tuesday as a guest judge, as Ellen has yet to make her debut) and then decided not to return Wednesday night. But it was a curious viewer response, and one that bears watching, as do all things regarding "American Idol."

Like scheduling, for instance. Last year "Idol" ran a two-hour Wednesday premiere. This year it opted for a 90-minute version, and then ran a "Simpsons" repeat (3.6/9), which fell by more than two-thirds from "Idol's" last half hour. Still, as usual during "Idol" season, Fox won handily with an 8.5/23 for the night.

CBS, with older-skewing dramas, finished second, as 9 p.m.'s "Criminal Minds" (3.8/10) and 10 p.m.'s "CSI: NY" (3.5/10) were actually 3% and 9%, respectively, above their original episode season-to-date averages. Sitcoms "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (1.8/5) and "Gary Unmarried" (1.9/5) were down 14% and 17%, respectively, however, as CBS averaged a 3.1/8 for the night.

ABC (third with a 2.2/6) also had relatively good retention compared to normal levels for original episodes of "The Middle" (2.1/5 off just a 10th of a ratings point), "Modern Family" (3.3/8, down 8%) and "Cougar Town" (3.1/8, off just a 10th) and "Ugly Betty" (holding last week's timeslot premiere delivery of a 1.6/5). The network started the night with a rerun of "Modern Family" (1.6/5).

NBC (fourth, 1.7/5) had another tough night, getting beat up in the ratings (only to get pummeled by its own personalities later on). "Mercy" (1.5/4) and "Law and Order: SVU" (2.0/5) hit original-episode season lows. Then "The Jay Leno Show," whose performance is at the heart of the network becoming a comic foil from both Jay and Conan O'Brien, finished last in its timeslot with a 1.5/4.

Rash gridsEnlarge
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

To be sure, "Idol" may come roaring back next week, and Wednesday's drop could be a blip. And if creating pop culture lightning is indeed an art and science, so is interpreting, and predicting, it. But one thing's for sure: "Idol's" younger viewers didn't flock to the CW, which ran reruns -- again -- of "One Tree Hill" (0.3/1) and "Gossip Girl" (0.2/1) to average a last-place 0.3/1.

WHAT TO WATCH: Thursday:
The Golden Globe Awards are Sunday, and Oscar nominations are coming attractions. Some nominees will stand the test of time, while some won't. Watch a classic that won Best Picture in 1958, when AMC airs "The Bridge Over the River Kwai." Friday: With NBC's Jeff Zucker reportedly threatening to keep Conan O'Brien off the air for up to three-and-a-half years, the late-night drama, and resulting comedy, from Conan, Jay Leno and David Letterman may be better than anything NBC schedules to replace "The Jay Leno Show."

Higher ratings for ABC's "Private Practice," as it has a crossover episode with the lead-in show that spawned it, "Grey's Anatomy."

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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.

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