That was then. With Fox's singing contest shedding about 20 percent of its audience so far this season to hit new lows, it's been leapfrogged repeatedly in total viewers by series including CBS's "Person of Interest" and "NCIS."
In a harsher blow to a blockbuster that once ruled the advertiser-adored young adult segment, "American Idol" has been overtaken this season by AMC's "The Walking Dead," despite the addition of glossy new "Idol" judges Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban.
But in its 12th season, "American Idol" is managing to hit the right notes with sponsors if not always with fickle viewers: It has retained its status as TV's advertising leader among series, and the loyalty of its biggest backers, including Ford and Coca-Cola.
"It's still a top 10 show," said Brad Adgate of media-buying firm Horizon Media. "Compared to several years ago, it's not the ratings force it once was. But even if it loses 20 percent" again, it's still valuable to Fox.
The audience's median age has jumped more than 18 years, to 50.4, from season one to last year -- meaning that youth-obsessed Madison Avenue is facing consumers more likely to be eyeing retirement funds than a prom date.
The show's alumni include success stories Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood, but more recent winners, such as Lee DeWyze and Phillips, have yet to prove themselves as stars in music, movies or elsewhere.
"Idol" also faces a crowded talent contest field and younger challengers like NBC's "The Voice." A second, spring edition of that show debuted Monday night and was up 9 percent over its fall premiere with 13.4 million viewers.
Reality-show touches, such as housing contestants together during filming, helped freshen the show.
This season hopes are on Carey, Minaj and Urban, pop stars with presumably younger fan bases, who joined mainstay Randy Jackson.
But keeping up appearances for that generation is costly: Fox and producer FremantleMedia North paying $18 million to Carey, $12 million to Minaj and a reported $6 million take for Urban.
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