It's good to be the 'Idol'

37.3 mil watch Season 6 premiere

Rival network executives who hoped that Fox's "American Idol" would show signs of age in its sixth season weren't happy after Tuesday's premiere scored the show's second-highest ratings ever.

"Idol" averaged a monster 37.3 million viewers and a 15.7 rating/36 share in the adults 18-49 demographic, according to preliminary data from Nielsen Media Research. Final data will be released today.

The ratings were up 5% in viewers and 3% in adults 18-49 compared with last year's premiere, which was no slouch (35.5 million, 15.3/34). But even more stunning, it was the second-biggest telecast for "Idol" since it debuted in summer 2002. The top ratings performer was the May 21, 2003, episode that featured finalists Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard facing off. That episode averaged 38.1 million viewers and a 16.8/37.

That ? and the fact that the reality juggernaut came back Wednesday for another two-hour episode ? gave Fox more cheer in its attempt to regain lost ground in the battle to win the adults 18-49 demo for the season.

It was a tough fourth quarter for the network, which only had "House" as a reliable performer and had another disappointing World Series as well as several failures among new shows. Fox has stuck to its plan to premiere "Idol" and "24" in January rather than September and has in the case of "Idol" resisted the temptation to play it twice a year.

"It makes for a very painful fourth quarter for us, but it's worth it when we get here and see these kinds of numbers," said Mike Darnell, executive vp alternative and special programming at Fox Broadcasting Co. Beyond being happy about the strong return of "Idol," Darnell said he wasn't sure precisely why "Idol" is so strong again, other than the fact that it's good television and extraordinarily broad.

"I really was holding my breath because, like the rest of the television industry, you assume that this thing is going to hit a ceiling at some point, as good as it is," Darnell said. "It's not possible for something to go up in its sixth season and still (be) the biggest thing on television."

On Tuesday night, "Idol" started strong with 31.1 million viewers and never looked back. It jumped to 37.1 million at 8:30 p.m., 39.7 million at 9 p.m. and 41.5 million by 9:30 p.m. It topped out at an 18.0/40 ? 40% of the U.S. homes using television were tuned to "Idol" then ? which was the best ratings for a telecast so far this season and the likely runner-up to only next month's Super Bowl.

It gave Fox another big night in this week of premieres, following Sunday and Monday's four-hour "24" opener and Wednesday's second two-hour premiere for "Idol." On the other hand, Fox is significantly behind in the adults 18-49 race, and it's going to take "24," "House" and "Idol" firing on all cylinders to have Fox notch another season-to-date win.

"We'll be in contention," Darnell said. "Whether we'll win or not, I don't know."

Beyond "Idol," everything else ? including originals on ABC, CBS and NBC ? was dwarfed by comparison on Tuesday night. CBS did OK with "NCIS" (15.9 million, 3.8/9) from 8-9 p.m.

And though Fox went off the air at 10 p.m., those viewers didn't return to the Big Three in any measure. "Law & Order: SVU" (14.1 million, 4.7/12) won the 10 p.m. hour against a new "Boston Legal" (9.9 million, 2.7/7) and "48 Hours Mystery" (8.1 million, 2.6/7).

For the night, Fox averaged 37.3 million viewers and a 15.7/36 in the demo, followed by CBS (12 million, 3.2/8), NBC (9.6 million, 2.9/7), ABC (7.2 million, 2.1/5) and the CW (1.5 million, 0.6/1).