The Idolatry Holds Tight as 'Idol' Snags 37 Million Viewers

Proving that
Proving that "American Idol" is big enough for a Vegas show, Madame Tussauds workers, from left, Adrienne Cammareri, Stephanie Freitas and Rosita Chapman, stood between wax figures of Simon Cowell, left, and Ryan Seacrest as they sang Tuesday at the unveiling of the interactive "Idol" attraction at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. (By Ethan Miller -- Getty Images)
By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, January 18, 2007

PASADENA, Calif., Jan. 17

Indestructible "American Idol" stormed prime time Tuesday, snaring a crowd of 37 million-plus viewers for its sixth-season opener.

With that one set of numbers, the television season is over. Fox will again finish the season No. 1 among the young viewers coveted by advertisers; other networks will move their most valued programs out of "Idol's" path no matter where Fox expands it (ABC has already placed "Lost" and the return of "Dancing With the Stars" out of the way); and program development discussions for next season, which are already in full flower at the networks, will be divided into shows that will go on the air "Before 'Idol' " or "During 'Idol.' "

"NBC will officially be ending our season as of yesterday," NBC entertainment chief Kevin Reilly joked to the press here at Winter TV Press Tour 2007 the morning after the "American Idol" debut.

"There's precedent for this," Reilly added. "Fox pretty much disregards the fall and says baseball interrupts their flow. At NBC we can say we're just going to disregard the spring because 'Idol' interrupts the flow. That's the way . . . it's going to be."

Competitors had hoped that Fox's annual aw-shucks forecast of a ratings decline for "Idol"might finally prove true this year. Reality program fans are, after all, notoriously fickle, and a series entering its sixth year could be expected to slip.

Instead, "Idol's" debut bagged about 2 million more viewers than last year's, approaching the kind of crowd that watched March's Academy Awards broadcast (39 million viewers).

Tuesday's opening "Idol" crowd doesn't threaten the record-holding final episode of "M*A*S*H," which recorded an average audience of 106 million viewers back in the '80s, or the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of "Dallas" (83.6 million), the "Cheers" swan song (80.4 million) or the last gasp of "Seinfeld" (76.3 million). Still, the ability of a singing competition to collect this kind of crowd in its sixth season, in this cable-digital-Internet-DVD-VOD-iPod age, had industry mavens scratching their heads yesterday.

"These amazing numbers from our Season 6 premiere defy all reasonable expectations," "Idol" creator Simon Fuller said yesterday in a statement, while a trade paper reported the show had "defied the laws of gravity."

Of course, "Idol" is more like a five-month Super Bowl than a traditional TV series, and no one batted an eye when the 40th Super Bowl logged 90 million viewers last year. As with the football game, as long as people continue to have children who grow up wanting to watch the show and compete in it, "Idol" could keep this up for years. A sort of TV Circle of Life.

"There's no question to me the once-a-year thing helps it feel like an event -- it feels like it's the Super Bowl in anticipation," Fox's reality guru Mike Darnell told The TV Column yesterday. "There has never been this much of a gap between the biggest show and the next biggest show [on television] -- it's like 10 million viewers."

Additionally, he said, it helps that "not a week goes by that something doesn't happen" with one of the finalists from past editions. "When the fifth-place person from Season 3 wins a Golden Globe and is apparently going to be nominated for an Oscar, that's a big deal," Darnell noted, referring to Jennifer Hudson, a sensation in the movie "Dreamgirls."

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