What Does American Idol's 24% Rating Drop Mean?

The ratings are in - and American Idol has dropped significantly in its 2012 premiere. It's way too early to predict the demise of the Reality Talent Contest to rule them all, but …  shouldn't everyone involved be just a little concerned that almost a quarter of their prime audience has apparently decided to dump the show?

According to Deadline, last night's premiere of Season 11 of Fox's hit show drew 21.6 million viewers, scoring a 7.2/18 rating in the all-important 18-49 demographic - impressive ratings, to be sure, but 17% down on last year's premiere for overall ratings and, more worryingly for Fox, 24% down in the 18-49 numbers. This annual drop for the season premiere isn't anything new; it's been falling since 2007's peak of 37.44 million (and a 15.8 share of the 18-49 demo), but it's the sharpest fall between years so far, and the lowest premiere audience since the show's first season. This isn't something as simple as the bloom being off the rose, this is a bad sign for Idol's future.

Part of the drop may come from viewer exhaustion; not only is this the eleventh straight year of Idol, but since the show's debut, we've seen all manner of pretenders, whether it's The Voice, The X-Factor, The Sing-Off or non-singing-specific cousins like So You Think You Can Dance or America's Got Talent. The talent contest genre was a godsend for networks - It's (relatively) cheap! Audiences love it! - and they grabbed on tight and held on for sheer life, trying to get as much out of it as possible. There's a certain element of "Who can blame them?" in here, I admit; after all, shouldn't they be trying to give the customer what they want?

Of course, when you're talking in homilies, there's also that one about there being such a thing as too much of a good thing, and that's maybe what's happened here. With Idol on every year, as regular as clockwork, there's little chance for the viewer to miss the show when it's gone - and even less so now that X-Factor which, despite claims to the contrary, really does feel like More American Idol (especially when it has two of Idol's most well-known faces on the judging panel), airs during the period when it's off-air. It's a shame, but fans of the show are too well-served in their need for this kind of programming with the result apparently being that they don't see any great need to tune in for auditions and bad singing considering they can still just bask in the afterglow of X-Factor's finale, less than a month ago.

(There's also the additional problem for Idol of it having no cards left to play at this point; last year was the big relaunch with new judges and an attempt to return to a less formulaic approach, and judging by last night's numbers, that didn't work. And as for new twists to the formula, what's even left over from all the other shows trying to do their own variations on a theme?)

All of this said: Idol isn't in any danger of cancellation with it commanding 21.6 million viewers, and I'll be surprised if numbers don't pick up slightly when the competition really begins. But a drop of the size it's just suffered should suggest to Fox that the diminishing returns are close to a point where they'll be diminishing enough to consider resting the show at least temporarily in order to let people actually want to watch it again, as opposed to simply finding themselves tuning in because it happens to be on.

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