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Updated: 'American Idol' finale is least-watched since '02

May 21, 2009 |  8:33 am

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 and was the least-watched "Idol" closer since the first season in summer 2002 (23 million). (Fox offered "time-zone-adjusted" ratings from Nielsen, which offered 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 last performance episode, featuring winner Taylor Hicks and runner-up Katharine McPhee, hit an all-time high of 31.8 million.

Among young viewers, "Idol's" descent continued. The Wednesday show sunk to a  record-low 9.5 rating/27 share in the crucial adults aged 18 to 49 demographic, 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 with 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 out-sized affair, with musical acts as varied as Queen Latifah, KISS and Jason Mraz. Perhaps the most-discussed highlight came when judge Kara DioGuardi dueted with former contestant Katrina Darrell, a.k.a. Bikini Girl.

 - Scott Collins