By Scott Collins
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES - This was supposed to be the year that "American Idol" crashed and burned. How could it not? Everyone knew ex-judge Simon Cowell was the star. Once he packed up and left with his tight T-shirts and brutal one-liners, "Idol" was like a young singer who forgets the lyrics: Living on borrowed time.
But turns out the pessimists will have to hang on to those eulogies a little longer.
Although "Idol" has continued to decline in the ratings - as it has done every season since 2006 - the loss has been far less than many observers were expecting. The Wednesday shows are averaging 24.4 million viewers, down 7 percent compared with last season, according to the Nielsen Co. Some of the same critics who jeered when Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez were first mentioned as prospective judges have warmed up to the pair on the show. So have viewers: Tyler, the Aerosmith front man, received a raucous ovation when he was introduced to the studio audience on Tuesday's show.
The newly formatted singing contest is still TV's No. 1 program and has again put Fox comfortably atop the 18-to-49-year-old demographic. On Thursday night, "Idol" will unveil its Top 12 in its first live show of its 10th season.
After some tense months of anticipation, Fox executives are finally starting to relax. Last year's "Idol" was almost universally slammed for the blandness of its contestants.
"Last year, the ratings started to really erode right about now," said Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman. "And we just don't feel that's going to happen. We're not saying it's going to go up necessarily, but we don't think we're looking at the 20 percent declines we were seeing last year in the second half of the season."
Maybe best of all for Fox, after moving "Idol" to a Wednesday-Thursday pattern this season (it had aired on Tuesdays and Wednesdays since its summer 2002 premiere), the network is now dominating Thursdays, a key night when advertisers spend heavily to try to influence viewers' weekend shopping and movie choices. According to Advertising Age, "Idol" is the most expensive commercial buy of any series on TV, with a 30-second spot going for an estimated $485,000.
"We've taken over a night where we couldn't get arrested for quite a while," Beckman said.
Veteran "Idol" watchers give much of the credit to Tyler, who has apparently taken over Cowell's role as the show's undisputed star.
"Tyler is a phenomenon in himself," said Richard Rushfield, a former Los Angeles Times staffer and author of the book "American Idol: The Untold Story." "Steven Tyler gives some of the thrills that the Osbournes brought, of seeing one of the few true gods of rock in a seemingly relaxed setting.... His presence in the early episodes has brought a lot of energy and life to a production that had felt listless and bored with itself in recent years."
Behind the scenes, the producers also made some tweaks to try to showcase talented singers early and cut back on the circus atmosphere that prevailed when bizarre or hopelessly deluded performers trooped before the judges. The auditions were pruned by a week this season, while the Hollywood rounds - when the contestants perform in groups and begin to interact with other contestants - were boosted.
Another change: Producers are encouraging singers not to rely so much on accompanying themselves on musical instruments, after critics complained of too much coffeehouse-like guitar strumming last year. "You're going to see less of that this year and more showmanship," Beckman promised.
Not all the signs are pointing up for Fox, of course. The audience for "Idol" has aged right along with the show. The median age during its first season was a youthful 30 but is now 45, which means that nearly half of its viewers are outside the demographic most desirable to advertisers. Among viewers 18 to 49, the Thursday shows are off 18 percent this season, to a 7.5 rating.
There's no guarantee that viewers will find the top 12 contestants sufficiently appealing to stick around. "We haven't gotten attached to any of the singers yet," Rushfield said. "That frankly will be the bigger thing that determines whether the ratings hold up or whether this was a dead-cat bounce."
And there are storm clouds on the horizon. Cowell left to start "The X Factor," a singing contest that has been a smash in the U.K. and that Fox will roll out in the fall. Fox executives have pondered whether the show could reduce appetites for "Idol" next winter.
But that's 10 months and a world away. For now, Fox executives are just happy to have proved the skeptics wrong.
"We've never taken this show for granted.... We worry about 'Idol' more than we worry about any other show on our schedule," Beckman said. "We do an online survey every week and compared to last year at this point, we're well above everything in terms of sentiment, interest in viewing, excitement. Every measure that we want to see improving has improved."