Fantasia Barrino may be America's newest "Idol," but when it comes to television ratings she's no Ruben Studdard.
More than 31 million people tuned in to the 90-minute series finale of Fox's "American Idol" Wednesday night as the 19-year-old North Carolinian beat out 16-year-old Diana DeGarmo for the title.
Although it stands as one of the biggest numbers for any network series this season, the finale was down about 18 percent from May 2003, when more than 38 million viewers saw Studdard take home the prize. The first "Idol" finale in September 2002, in which Kelly Clarkson took the crown, drew slightly under 23 million viewers.
In the all-important 18-to-49-year-old demographic, "Idol" was down 21 percent from last May's finale.
Fox points out that the audience decline can be attributed in part to the show's airing close to the Memorial Day weekend, when viewer levels tend to decrease. The total number of television viewers Wednesday night was down about 10 percent from the night of last year's finale, May 21, according to network spokesman Scott Grogin.
A Fox news release also noted the 25 percent audience drop between the finale of CBS's "Survivor 2" in May 2001 and "Survivor 3" in January 2002. As the release stated, "The finales of other successful reality shows have shown much bigger declines over the seasons."
Wednesday's "Idol" nonetheless ranks as the fourth most-watched series of the television season, behind only the "Friends" finale and clip show on NBC earlier this month and the post-Super Bowl premiere of "Survivor: All-Stars" in February. Factoring in the Super Bowl and post-game show as well as February's Academy Awards on ABC, the "Idol" finale ranks seventh for the season.
Fox's Wednesday night also became the third most watched in the network's history; nearly 29 million viewers saw all two hours of "Idol" programming, beginning with the half-hour clip show at 8. Excluding sporting events, Fox's top nights are the "Joe Millionaire" finale in February 2003 (35 million) and last May's "Idol" finale (34.2 million, including the hour-long retrospective).
The "Idol" finale also boosted Fox's season-ending standing among the 18-to-49 crowd. The network finished just one-tenth of a ratings point behind NBC, the closest it's ever come to winning the demographic. The finish among younger viewers is remarkable considering early ratings disasters such as "Joe Millionaire 2" and such short-timers as "Skin," "Luis" and "A Minute With Stan Hooper."
"We're ecstatic to come this close after having a really challenging fall," Fox's Grogin said.