Networks Still Bank On, Avoid 'American Idol'

The TV season so far has yielded several positive results, with virtually every network able to point to an encouraging primetime newcomer or strong returning favorite. But as midseason approaches, the fortunes of broadcast primetime largely hinge on how big Fox's American Idol will be.

The top-rated series on television enters its ninth season on a downward ratings trajectory and a substantial cast change, with Ellen DeGeneres replacing Paula Abdul at the judges' table. Season five was Idol's high-water mark; it averaged 16.3 million viewers in the 18-49 demo for the combined weekly broadcasts. Last season, it was down to 12.1 million demo viewers.

But slipping ratings and the on-air shakeup are cold comfort for competing networks that will continue this midseason to try to “play through” the Idol time slots, as one network executive put it. With the bulk of midseason plans now announced, it is clear TV's top show will go another season with no competitor making a move to take it on directly.

“The show is the Death Star,” says one rival network executive. “It's killer.”

Season nine of Idol is not only expected to dominate its own time slots on Tuesday and Wednesday, but could catapult freshman musical comedy Glee from promising youngster to a bona fide hit when it returns to Fox in April, in the plum slot following Idol on Tuesdays.

Idol did the same six seasons ago for House, which was struggling when it bowed in November 2004 before getting a huge midseason lead-in from Idol.

According to Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, Idol “will bolster any show that [airs] after it, and then it's up to the show to find out if it's been artificially inflated.”

House nearly doubled its ratings behind Idol. Glee, which got a post-Idol preview in May, has found a core young fan base that also downloads the show's music. And Fox executives are optimistic that Glee's compatibility with Idol will position Glee for breakout status. “Are we anticipating an 8-rated show? No, we're not,” Reilly says. “But we're certainly anticipating real growth the second half of the year.”

Starting in January, reality show Little Genius gets the post-Idol Tuesday slot, where CBS has established a beachhead with NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife. NCIS has traditionally held up well against Idol; the show is on track to have its highest-rated season yet, averaging more than 21 million viewers. New series Human Target will premiere in the post-Idol slot on Wednesday, Jan. 20, before moving to the 8 p.m. lead-off slot the following Wednesday.

House, CBS' rejuvenated comedy lineup and what could be the final season for 24 are shaping up to make Mondays even more competitive this season. Beginning Jan. 4, ABC will fill two hours on Mondays with The Bachelor. NBC's cult favorite Chuck returns Jan. 11; it will be paired with Heroes. But NBC is pinning its hopes on the Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 12, and Ron Howard's Parenthood, which will get the 9 p.m. Monday slot when the Olympics end. Nevertheless, NBC's entertainment chief Angela Bromstad says that Mondays are “going to continue to be brutally competitive.”

ABC and CBS have yet to announce full midseason schedules. CBS is relatively stable, jettisoning only one new show, the DOA medical drama Three Rivers. It will likely plug that hole with the Jerry Bruckheimer drama Miami Medical. ABC's Lost returns for its final season on a new day, Tuesdays at 9 p.m., beginning Feb. 2. The network's Happy Town and Romantically Challenged are among those waiting in the wings.

But the season is likely to end the same way it has in recent seasons, says Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of programming at media buying firm Carat: “The usual suspects will be CBS in total viewers and households, and Fox in 18-49.”

Just how long Idol can continue to fuel the fortunes of Fox in particular and broadcast TV in general is an open question. Idol host Ryan Seacrest has a deal keeping him at the show through the 2012 season, but Simon Cowell's contract expires in May.

“What's interesting about non-scripted TV is it has an opportunity to reinvent itself every cycle,” says CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler. “Essentially it's a new cast. There are certain things in the Zeitgeist at particular times that certainly find their way to the show. Because of that, it's hard to predict longevity.”

Melissa Grego contributed to this report.