Mixed Ratings Results for Returning Idol

Fox stalwart’s demo delivery down 19 percent from 2012 debut

Season 12 of American Idol got off to a somewhat iffy start as the two-hour premiere failed to live up to last year’s debut.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the season opener averaged 17.9 million total viewers, down 4 million or 18 percent versus the 2012 premiere. The new-look Idol—Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban have stepped in for the departed Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler—absorbed an even bigger body blow in the target demo, averaging a 6.0 rating among adults 18-49, down 19 percent from the year-ago 7.4.

Idol peaked in the 8:30 p.m. half-hour, averaging a 6.8 in the demo.

Fox needs Idol to do a lot of heavy lifting this season if it’s to have a shot at returning to prominence in the demo. After 16 weeks of the 2012-13 broadcast television season (through Sunday, Jan. 13), Fox is in third place with a 2.4, down 20 percent from last season. The network is also in fourth place among total viewers.

While Wednesday night marked the lowest-rated opener since the show’s first broadcast—the June 11, 2002, series premiere drew a 4.8 in the dollar demo—Idol remains one of TV’s last true reach vehicles. NFL games aside, only CBS’ The Big Bang Theory thus far this season has broken the 6.0 mark, delivering a 6.1 on Jan. 3 and a 6.4 the following week.  

Of course, lousy ratings have dogged the networks since the season began. Of the 24 new series that have bowed this year, only four are still topping a 2.0 in the 18-49 demo. Eight years ago, when Idol’s total-season average was more than double (12.5) what the show delivered last night, no fewer than 10 programs finished the 2005-06 campaign with a 6.0 or better.

Along with its recent ratings difficulties, Idol has grayed considerably since it premiered in 2002. In its inaugural run, the series boasted a median age of 31.9 years; last season’s 50.7 marked a 59 percent increase from Season 1.

Media buyers estimate that the average cost of a 30-second spot on Idol’s Wednesday broadcasts is around $350,000, down 30 percent from a unit cost of $500,000 in the most recent cycle. Thursday’s results show is a bit cheaper ($300,000). Sunday Night Football boasts the steepest sticker price in prime time; a :30 ran around $535,000 during the 2012 NFL campaign.

Last year’s Wednesday night show averaged 18.1 million viewers and a 5.4 in the demo. The 2012 cycle marked the first time since 2006 that Idol did not finish out as the No. 1 show on broadcast, bowing to NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

Idol returns tonight at 8 p.m. for another two-hour session, going head-to-head with NBC’s underappreciated Thursday night lineup, a slate of repeats on CBS and ABC’s canceled freshman drama Last Resort and the nine-year-old Grey’s Anatomy franchise.