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'American Idol' Finale's Ratings Free Fall: What Went Wrong

With a median age of 51.2 during season 12, "It's become your grandparents' 'American Idol,'" says media analyst Brad Adgate.

Candice Glover finale square P
Michael Becker / Fox
Season 13 winner Candice Glover

The numbers are in on the American Idol season 12 finale, and it’s not a pretty picture. The Fox show saw a dip of more than 40 percent from the 2012 season closer, losing some 7 million viewers to come in at a 3.6 rating among adults 18-49. Total viewers equaled 14.3 million -- the first time a finale has not reached the 20-million mark since the show first aired in 2002.

What went wrong? You could place the blame on any number of factors: from viewer fatigue and a stale formula as the show closes its 12th year, the bad chemistry at the judges’ table, which brought in two feuding pop divas that barely glanced at each other, competition from NBC’s The Voice, which has also seen ratings decline in its fourth season, and a less than enthralling contestant pool clearly positioned to hoist two girls to the finish line.

Also impacting the show’s numbers: the fact that it shifted the finale up a week, putting it in direct competition with several highly buzzed about season finales -- and one series ender, NBC’s The Office.

PHOTOS: 'American Idol': Randy Jackson Through the Years

But most damaging, where advertising revenue is concerned, is the show’s aging audience. Currently, the average Idol viewer is 51.2 years old, according to Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, who points out that a year prior, it was 50.3, and 47.3 the season before that. “The numbers are headed in the wrong direction,” says Adgate. Recognizing that Idol continues to be a top 5 show, he adds, “If the show got 10 million viewers and the median age was 32, I don’t think advertisers would mind that. But it’s become your grandparents’ American Idol.

That explains a lot about Thursday’s low rated finale show, which featured such duet partners as Frankie Valli and Aretha Franklin (via video) and seemed to lean on Idol alums, both finalists like Adam Lambert and Jennifer Hudson and four former and current judges -- Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Randy Jackson and Keith Urban. Other performers included the more current Jessie J, newcomer Emeli Sande and country trio The Band Perry.

STORY: 'American Idol' Winners, Alums Share Randy Jackson Memories

But Adgate believes the biggest harm to Idol has been the spin-off series’, be it The X Factor, also on Fox, or The Voice. “What made Idol so special was its limited supply,” he says.  “And to its credit, Fox didn’t succumb to the financial pressures of running the show in the Fall. But to keep Simon Cowell happy, it created a spin-off series and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that once it came in, you started to see this significant downfall for Idol. … In two years, Idol’s average audience has dropped by 10 million viewers, from 23.1 million viewers to 13.2 million.

Such a dramatic slide could precipitate hefty discounts on ads for next year’s show. This, after a 32 percent drop in rates -- to $432,000 for a 30-second spot during the season -- signals more potential bad news on the horizon along with the possibility of make goods in the form of bonus units or online video.

“Buyers are not going to be tripping over themselves like they had been about paying a premium ad rate for Idol,” says Adgate. “Sure, it’s a top 10 show this year, but with young viewers leaving en masse and next year’s judges up in the air…” Well, as with many past show grads -- season 12 winner Candice Glover and runner-up Kree Harrison now among them -- Idol brass might want to keep their expectations in check.

Twitter: @Idol_Worship