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Sorry, dawg, just not feelin' it


Maybe it's not as shocking as, say, Aussie heartthrob Michael Johns getting voted off the show.

But the news still surprises: "American Idol's" ratings are down. Way down, among some viewers.

Could it be that the singing smash, which has entirely reshaped television over the past seven seasons, is finally proving mortal? And if so, what will that mean for Fox, the rest of the TV industry and Ryan Seacrest's career?

Some of the above are worth contemplating.

At first glance, the erosion doesn't seem so bad. "Idol" has slipped 7% in average total viewers (to 29.2 million, as of last week) compared with last season, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.

"This show has defied the odds," Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman told me Friday. " 'American Idol' has held up better than any other show, scripted or unscripted, on television."

And yet . . . this season the show has shed nearly one-fifth of women viewers ages 18 to 34 -- one of its most important constituencies -- and is down a comparable amount among kids 2 to 11. That's a bad sign, because children and young adults are generally the first to bail on a show that's getting crow's feet.

And the pace of the falloff may be quickening. Last week's performance show, featuring the songs of Mariah Carey, one of the most successful pop singers in history, was the lowest-rated Tuesday "Idol" in five years among TV's most important demographic, adults ages 18 to 49. The subsequent results show, in which country warbler Kristy Lee Cook got the hook, delivered "Idol's" worst Wednesday numbers among adults ages 18 to 34 since its first season back in summer 2002.

Producers also saw depressed ratings for their "Idol Gives Back" charity extravaganza, which this year aired as a stand-alone show with no competition-related material.

So, there you have the Nielsen bullet points. But what does it all mean? Is it a temporary speed bump for "Idol," or is the show headed for a long stretch of bad road? And if it's the latter, toward what does a decline for "Idol," TV's No. 1 show, point for future TV programming and scheduling?

The first thing to remember, of course, is that "Idol's" ratings are still huge, even if they were huger in years past. The April 8 telecast easily grabbed the crown as the week's No. 1 telecast, with 24.7 million viewers. Although CBS beat the drums hard for the post-strike return of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," the forensics drama had to settle for a second-place tie with the "Idol" results show (20.1 million). It goes without saying -- well, rival executives will certainly say it, just not on the record -- that other networks would be quite happy to have a No. 1 show with these kinds of problems.

Fox executives, for their part, are quick to point out that all of network TV has suffered in this strike-plagued season. And that's true: All five broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW) have collectively dipped 10% among adults 18 to 49 this season.

Now, although you could make the argument -- as this column did awhile back -- that the effect of the writers strike should have created more opportunities for "Idol," Fox's Beckman took the opposite view. Rival networks threw so many strike-inspired reality programs on the air, he said, that "the number of unscripted shows that went against 'American Idol' was double what they were last year."

The more fundamental problem, though, is probably show fatigue. The conventional wisdom among TV producers and their accountants is that hit shows, no matter how popular, usually start delivering diminished ratings somewhere from Season 5 to Season 7. Seen that way, "Idol's" apparent decline is adhering to form. Some fans are seeing the program as less essential than it was a year or two ago. How many times can Americans see Seacrest insult Simon Cowell, and vice versa, before they say, "Enough already"?

"It would be great if the ratings could stay in the high 20s or low 30s," said executive producer Ken Warwick, referring to "Idol's" customary viewership in the tens of millions. "But everything has a sell-by date. Everything."

Warwick scoffed at Cowell's notion, quoted in a recent Variety interview, that the show was suffering this year because the contestants lack "personality" and are making "safe" song choices.

That's not to say, though, that Fox and the producers aren't going to huddle at the end of the season and talk about making some changes. The network carefully weighs research on audience reactions to "Idol," Beckman said. This season, executives noticed that the ratings dipped a bit during the audition phase, rebounded during the Hollywood rounds and then dropped to last week's lows.

"We have to think about how it's presented," Beckman said of "Idol," although he declined to speculate what sorts of changes might be in the offing: "These are questions you naturally ask when a show is in its seventh year."

How the rest of television will respond to more earthbound "Idol" numbers is harder to parse.

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