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'Idol's' 5th-season opener its biggest yet

January 19, 2006|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

THE spectacular ratings for Fox's "American Idol" season premiere on Tuesday left TV veterans shaking their heads, amazed at the singing contest's ability to defy the usual laws of Hollywood.

An average of 35.5 million viewers tuned in to the two-hour "Idol" premiere, according to preliminary figures from Nielsen Media Research. It was the most-watched season opener yet for the series and the No. 1 entertainment program on television so far this season; the only program of any kind to draw more viewers was this month's Rose Bowl, with 35.6 million.

The biggest surprise is that "Idol" has delivered those numbers at the start of its fifth season, a time when many hits have peaked in the ratings and are beginning a gradual decline.

Meeting reporters at the semiannual TV press tour Wednesday in Pasadena, CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler pronounced herself "blown away" by "Idol's" numbers. "Idol" was especially tough on ABC's struggling "Commander in Chief," which, despite a Golden Globe win Monday for star Geena Davis, sank to its lowest ratings yet.

For Fox, the return of "Idol" means becoming competitive again after another disappointing fall (the network is currently tied for third with NBC among the young-adult viewers advertisers favor most). Executives have chosen to deploy the series sparingly, once a year between January and May. That strategy has its pros and cons; on one hand, it protects "Idol" from quickly growing stale, but it also consigns Fox to a struggle with a truncated fall season after its coverage of postseason baseball wraps in October.

"It's almost as if there's the NFL season, there's Major League Baseball season, then it's 'American Idol' season," Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori told reporters Tuesday.

After the numbers rolled in Wednesday, even Liguori was thrown a bit off-guard: "The fact that 'American Idol' is seeing its biggest premiere numbers ever ... is nothing less than astounding," he said in a statement.

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