Wednesday's "American Idol" finale may have boasted higher vote tallies and splashier production numbers than in the past. But the ratings? Call them a sign of the straitened times, but they were reduced.
Fox's two-hour finale, a heavily hyped showdown in which low-key crooner Kris Allen upset flamboyant rocker Adam Lambert, drew an average of 27.7 million total viewers, according to early data from Nielsen Media Research.
That represented a 13% slide compared with last year, making this the least-watched "Idol" closer since the first season in summer 2002 (23 million). (Fox offered "time-zone-adjusted" ratings from Nielsen, which had a higher viewer tally of 28.8 million, a mark the network said would be closer to the final figure.) The 2003 finale between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken remains the most-watched, with 38.1 million tuning in.
Tuesday's final performance show was likewise the least-watched in seven years, with 23.8 million viewers. In 2006, the final performance episode with eventual winner Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee hit an all-time high of 31.8 million.
Among young viewers, "Idol's" descent continued. The Wednesday show sank to a record-low 9.5 rating/27 share in the crucial demographic of adults ages 18 to 49, a 17% skid compared with last year.
However, "Idol" still remains far and away TV's No. 1 series, whose ratings achievements are all the more remarkable against a backdrop of steep declines for broadcasters. The Tuesday and Wednesday editions of "Idol" have been the top shows among adults 18 to 49 for six straight seasons -- the longest run in network history. This season, "Idol" piled up a record 72% ratings advantage over the next highest series, ABC's "Desperate Housewives."
Wednesday's finale was a suitably outsized affair, with musical acts including Queen Latifah, KISS and Jason Mraz. Perhaps the most-discussed highlight came when judge Kara DioGuardi duetted with former contestant Katrina Darrell, a.k.a. Bikini Girl.