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'American Idol' Belts Out a Huge Opening Number: 33.6 Million

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page C01


The fourth-edition debut of Fox's "American Idol" on Tuesday night smashed all of this season's viewing records. It was the singing competition's biggest opening night -- putting the kibosh on all that speculation that reality TV is on the wane.

Nearly 34 million viewers caught the two-hour show -- only 4 million short of the most watched "Idol" episode ever, the second-edition finale in May 2003, when Ruben Studdard beat Clay Aiken.

Mary Roach, 18, of Manassas gets her shot at stardom in front of "American Idol" judges at Washington auditions. (Fox)

It was, in fact, the most watched TV broadcast since the "Friends" finale in May and the most watched season debut since that of "Friends" in 2002.

The "Idol" debut also was Fox's third most watched night of entertainment programming, behind the show's second-season finale and the wrap of the first "Joe Millionaire," which riveted a whopping 40 million people in the February ratings sweeps of 2003.

With its all-"Idol" prime time, Fox clocked more viewers on Tuesday than CBS, NBC, ABC, WB and UPN combined.

The "Idol" rebound surprised Hollywood, including Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman, who two days earlier told critics to expect smaller numbers for this edition of the hit series. That made sense, given that last year's "Idol," won by Fantasia Barrino, had not done quite as well as the second edition.

Asked about the numbers, Viacom co-president Leslie Moonves, who showed up again Wednesday at Winter TV Press Tour 2005 to discuss his UPN network, called them "phenomenal," adding with a sly smile, "I think Gail undersold it very well."

Berman noted that she also, correctly, had forecast that last season's "Idol" would experience slight ratings declines but that she wasn't accused then of underselling it to temper critics' expectations.

"I wasn't trying to manage expectations," she told The TV Column of her comment on Monday that "Idol" viewership would be down. "No one in their right mind would have predicted a 9 percent increase."

(Compared with last January's debut, Tuesday's kickoff was up 9 percent among viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, but up 16 percent above the nearly 29 million viewers of all ages who'd tuned in a year ago.)

"I've never seen numbers like this," Berman said Wednesday morning. "I'm stunned -- we are all stunned. I can't process these numbers."

Asked her take on the show's bounce back, Berman said, "I can only say it's the people's show," adding, "I know that sounds corny."

"Idol" is the only top-rated reality series now on television in which viewers decide which contestant to eliminate each week and choose the winner.

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