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American Idol returned to TV on Sunday night, and the expectations could not have been more … muddled. The early hot take is that it held up pretty well, but it won’t likely be giving The Voice a run for its money any time soon.
In its first outing, the former Fox juggernaut delivered ABC an average 2.3 rating among adults 18-49 and 10.3 million viewers over two hours. It’s a solid restart for the franchise, which has a lot riding on it — while also being subjected to slightly less pressure than during its original run.
For a direct comparison, which is only fair considering how little time has passed since it was last on the air, the first episode of the venerable singing competition’s final season on Fox pulled an average 3.0 rating in the key demo and just shy of 11 million viewers. That means initial same-day losses of roughly 23 percent among younger viewers and a scant 6 percent among total viewers from little more than two years ago. (As for dominant singing competition The Voice, the NBC darling returned for its latest season with a 2.8 rating among adults 18-49 and 12.3 million night of viewers.)
The new Idol did not premiere without a few variables working against it. Linear TV tune-in for the young year has seen some sharp declines, the 2018 Academy Awards being one very big example. ABC used the Oscars as its big promotional push for Idol, but the show pulled a record low 26.5 million viewers. There’s also the unknown Ryan Seacrest effect. The prodigal emcee, whom Disney bosses went to great lengths to secure, continues to bat down allegations of sexual misconduct, even after an investigation at E! found no culpability. Seacrest’s Oscar red carpet ratings sank, with the show itself, but his morning gig with Kelly Ripa continues to thrive.
American Idol’s last season on Fox ultimately averaged that same 3.0 rating for Wednesday telecasts in live-plus-seven-day returns — impressive by both 2016 and 2018 standards. ABC is said to have guaranteed at least a 1.8 rating in the key demo to advertisers. It’s not a lofty goal, and one that should be easily attainable given Sunday’s inaugural performance.
So what can really be said of Idol after just one episode? ABC is naturally playing the long game on this one, and multiplatform lifts will be key. But retention is the most important attribute in the current TV economy, especially among alternative programming. Broadcast’s latest stab at a singing competition, Fox’s The Four, delivered numbers that would be ho-hum on almost any measuring stick. Those modest returns were consistent, though. Its average 1.3 rating, with time-shifting, was enough to score a renewal.
Speaking of Fox, the network certainly tried to sabotage ABC’s plan to relaunch its former flagship. With less than two weeks notice, the network announced it would be pitting O.J. Simpson’s unaired 2006 “If I Did It” interview against the premiere. The plan seems to have fumbled. O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession? — yes, the question mark is part of the title — averaged a 1.2 rating in the key demo and 4.4 million viewers. Those are both respectable numbers for a Sunday, but not any different from what it usually sees among adults 18-49 for its comedy lineup.
ABC used Idol to launch midseason drama Deception, its latest swing at a broad procedural drama. The opening hour, which Hollywood Reporter critic Daniel Fienberg deemed “not bad enough to make viewers disappear,” earned a 1.3 rating among adults 18-49 and 6.1 million viewers. It’s enough to win the hour for ABC, but pretty poor retention given its lead-in.
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