Dancing quicksteps towards Idol's ratings crown
By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Television's dancing stars nipped at the heels of the wannabe singers on No. 1 talent show "American Idol" this week, posing a threat to the jewel in Fox's ratings crown for the first time in six years.
The eighth season premiere of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" on Monday drew the largest opening audience ever for the four year-old ballroom dance spectacle, scoring 22.8 million viewers and causing industry watchers to wonder whether "Idol's" reign atop U.S. TV ratings charts is now in jeopardy.
But as narrow as the viewership gap was this week, experts say "Idol" should beat back the challenge by "Dancing."
At stake are tens of millions of advertising dollars for the shows' networks, The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC for "Dancing" and News Corp.'s Fox for "Idol."
"I don't think 'Idol' is going to lose its mantel as the most-watched television show," said James Hibberd, senior reporter with entertainment newspaper The Hollywood Reporter. "I do think that with this great start for 'Dancing', there is a chance that this year could be tighter than ever."
Ratings for "Idol" are down about nine percent in total viewers at the midway point of its current eighth season compared to last year. The show's hold on younger viewers in the 12- to 34-year-old age group coveted by advertisers is off about 16 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.
While it remains the most-watched U.S. TV program, 2009 "Idol" audiences are currently about 24-25 million compared to last year's season average 28.1 million. Wednesday night's program, which saw the first departure of contestants, reached 24.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
GENERAL TV DECLINE
Industry watchers note U.S. TV viewership continues to slide across the board as it has in recent years with only CBS among the major networks growing its prime-time audience -- by about three percent. They say, the industry trend is likely a key factor "Idol's" ratings slippage.
But there is little doubt that "Dancing" has amped up its promotional wattage this new season to challenge "Idol," and the program has been helped by a little of its own drama.
The 11th hour loss of injured singer Jewel and celebrity journalist Nancy O'Dell turned into "Dancing's" gain as its new season opened on Monday to curiosity and network hype over their replacements.
ABC scored a coup by bringing in jilted fiancee Melissa Rycroft from its own resurgent reality dating show "The Bachelor" which helped boost numbers, industry watchers said.
A true test of viewer interest will come next week when the two shows go head-to-head on Tuesday night.
Moreover, the ratings decline for "Idol" is not unexpected, despite new tweaks to its format including adding a fourth judge. Audiences generally tend to dip and surge again in the last few weeks of the competition as it nears its May climax.
"Most TV show (audiences) still go down more. People talk about 'Idol' losing steam but it still has so much more steam than anybody else," said Hibberd.
As important to advertisers is the fact that the two shows reach different primary audiences. "Dancing" generally appeals to a slightly older, 50-plus viewers whose buying patterns are mostly set compared to impressionable young audiences.
"Advertisers will pay a premium for young viewers," said Brad Adgate, senior vice-president of research at Horizon Media. "I think 'Idol' is still the front runner because they have a younger audience and they deliver more eyeballs."
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)