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Cowell's 'American Idol' exit draws 24.2 million viewers

May 27, 2010 |  9:07 am


Ryan Seacreast declared it "the end of an era," and Janet Jackson even kept her shirt on. But in the eyes of Nielsen, Simon Cowell's last episode as chief justice of "American Idol" was the least-watched finale since its first season, when the show ran during the summer and was just starting to become a phenomenon.

About 24.2-million people tuned in Wednesday night to see Lee DeWyze get crowned the new "American Idol" over Crystal Bowersox, who seemed to be the people's choice. Although that is a strong number that any network would kill for, it is also about 16% off the 28.8 million who watched last year's finale. Among adults ages 18 to 49, Wednesday night's finale averaged an 8.2 rating, off 18% from last year's 10.0 rating. A rating point in that demographic equals 1.3-million people.

Fox pulled out all the stops for Cowell's final show. Paula Abdul returned to say goodbye to her old on-air nemesis. Comedian Dane Cook made music out of Cowell's more infamous put-down lines, and Bret Michaels, who recently suffered a mild stroke and a brain hemorrhage, performed. Also performing with "American Idol" winners and wannabes were Hall & Oates and Alanis Morissette, who had to have the lyrics to her hit "You Oughta Know" tweaked before it could be performed on broadcast television.

For the season, "American Idol" saw declines in viewers and adults ages 18 to 49 of about 10%. The show's ratings have been sliding for several years, but it is still a cash cow for the network and its most valuable franchise. How much of the show's success is tied to Cowell's biting wit and musical taste will be clear next season when "American Idol" goes on without him and he starts "The X Factor," another musical talent show, for the network.

Though lots of names have been floated in the press as possible Cowell replacements -- Elton John, Jamie Foxx, Tommy Mottola -- Fox and the show's producers are keeping mum, and a replacement is not expected to be named in the immediate future.

Figuring out how to replace Cowell is just one question facing the franchise. On the business side, CKX Inc., parent of 19 Entertainment, one of the producers of "American Idol," may be sold. Among those expressing interest in the company are its own founder, Robert F.X. Sillerman, who resigned earlier this spring as chairman and CEO, and Hollywood executive Allen Shapiro.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Paula Abdul and Ryan Seacrest say goodbye to Simon Cowell. Credit: Vince Bucci / Reuters