As Writers Idle, 'Idol' May Boom

Juggernaut American Idol returns Tuesday (Jan. 15) on Fox and is expected to see a ratings boom as the writers strike could give Simon Cowell and company an advantage.

Rival networks seldom even try to compete with Idol airings anyway. That is part of the message from Fox, which now begins its annual dance of trying to lower expectations for television's biggest show.

Says Fox programming chief Preston Beckman, "We don't anticipate a surge in viewership, but we assume it will be somewhere around what it seems to do every year for the auditions."

But many think Idol will benefit not just from a lack of head-to-head competition on the nights it airs, but also because there will be less competition for buzz in the television ether.

"Now that may be true, because Idol is immune to [the strike]," Beckmans. "But it's so big anyway. At this point, you'd almost like to meet the 8% of people in the country who don't know about Idol. Maybe [Fox reality chief Mike] Darnell should put them in a reality show."

Other networks have long waited for the ratings behemoth to finally show some erosion. But with network television showing weakness even prior to the strike, a drop for the biggest player in the game could sound alarm bells across the industry.

"It would be a bit disconcerting if Fox had trouble opening Idol," says a rival network executive. "That could suggest a growing apathy among viewers toward network television."

Beckman says this year's auditions will try to get more personal information across about the contestants.

"We want to make sure people know the talent is there, that it's not just a parade of goofballs for the first couple of weeks," he says.

The move is an effort to rebound from a season that may be remembered as much for cult favorite Sanjaya Malakar as for winner Jordin Sparks. Last year's finale drew 31 million viewers, but that figure was down 16% from the previous year.