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'American Idol' sweats to the oldies as young viewers flee

April 28, 2009 |  5:59 pm

On last Wednesday's "American Idol," disco artist Thelma Houston strutted her stuff onstage. It was hardly a ploy designed to boost ratings among the youngsters, since Houston happens to be 65 years old. But given the trends affecting the overall audience for Fox's singing smash -- which is, after all, supposed to be about finding the next generation of pop stars -- the choice of guest may have made perfect sense.

Now hurtling toward the finale of Season 8, "Idol" is still TV's top show, and it will probably enjoy that distinction for quite a while longer. The folks at Fox point out that the series could lose 12% of its audience every season and it would still be a top 10 show through its 15th year, in 2016.

The Tuesday "Idol" performance shows this season have averaged 26.5 million viewers, down 10% compared with the same period last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. However, the show has recovered a bit lately and over the past three weeks is even up slightly compared with last year.

But the audience for "Idol" is aging. The median viewer age for the Tuesday performance show this season is 42.9, or more than 11 years older than when the show premiered in the summer of 2002. Few people in their 40s or beyond are likely to know much about Lady Gaga, a young dance music diva who appeared on "Idol" previously this season. Houston is more their speed. 

The producers, of course, know all this. They are confronting the same laws of gravity that eventually catch up with all TV series. The audience gets older as it gets smaller. "Idol" has defied the forces far longer than most shows, but it cannot escape them. 

That likely explains an unusual ratings phenomenon this season, in which "Idol's" Wednesday results show (26.8 million), which is heavily padded with filler material, has slightly outperformed its Tuesday edition, where the contestants actually compete. This has not happened since "Idol's" first season.

The reason? It's likely that "Idol's" increasingly middle-aged audience is tuning in Wednesdays to catch oldies acts like Houston, '60s idol Frankie Avalon and Smokey Robinson. It was the kids who were most attached to the competition itself, and they're beginning to lose interest.

The open question is what "Idol's" ultimate fate will be, a question that has large ramifications not just for Paula Abdul but for the future of network TV. It's possible to imagine three outcomes. The show could keep reinventing itself -- periodically revamping host and judges, for example -- and become a TV perennial, a la "The Tonight Show." Simon Cowell, the acerbic judge, has been openly speculating about leaving the show, just as his current contract nears its expiration.

The producers and network could simply decide at some point that the show has had a good run and it's time to call it quits. This being television, that seems the least likely outcome. Or there could be what's behind door No. 3: "Idol" maturing into a variety show for nostalgic baby boomers.

That seems to be the direction plotted by the producers this season. And if that trend continues, it could be very good for Thelma Houston.

-Scott Collins


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