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Originally published Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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3-headed monster of ratings: "American Idol" is back

The water in a drinking glass quivers. Soon the earth beneath you is being regularly and powerfully jolted by some unseen force. Each shake is accompanied...

The Plain Dealer of Cleveland

On TV

"American Idol," 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday on KCPQ.

The water in a drinking glass quivers. Soon the earth beneath you is being regularly and powerfully jolted by some unseen force. Each shake is accompanied by a nerve-jangling thump that echoes through the darkness.

It's heading your way. And you feel the vibrations well before that T. rex shows up in "Jurassic Park." Remember this moment from director Steven Spielberg's movie?

That's what rival programmers are feeling with Fox's "American Idol" about to stomp onto the prime-time scene. In case you hadn't heard, the reality juggernaut begins its seventh season at 8 tonight and, yes, it has teeth.

The Tuesday and Wednesday editions of "American Idol" were the most-watched shows of the 2005-06 season. They were the most-watched shows of the 2006-07 season. And few doubt they will be the most-watched shows of this season.

"It's the biggest show in television by a mile," said Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative entertainment. "It's going to be huge. I don't know how it's going to do relative to where it was last year or the year before, but I never want to guess that anymore, because years I thought it was going to go down, it goes up."

Fox executives can't hit enough high notes when singing the praises of "American Idol." And, hey, what's a strained vocal cord or two when you consider all the dough-re-mi this reality hit makes for the network?

It has become a familiar tune this time of year, when Fox gleefully jumps on the back of "American Idol," riding its talent-search T. rex to a No. 1 finish with viewers 18-to-49 years old. That's the demographic most cherished by advertisers.

How powerful is "American Idol"? Last year, the ratings actually were down slightly over the previous season. Even with this slip, however, "Idol" still outpaced the No. 3 and No. 4 shows in television, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and CBS' "CSI," respectively, by about 10 million viewers.

"Last year, for all the attention it got, 'Idol' slipped, and yet no one perceived it as slipping," said David Bianculli, a TV historian who runs the Web site www.tvworthwatching.com. "It's amazing it's as strong as it is this many times through the cycle. From a ratings standpoint, it's the closest thing we have today to a regularly scheduled Super Bowl. The collapse was predicted two years ago, so we're in uncharted territory."

The gap between "American Idol" and everything else on television isn't mere separation. The Fox front-runner is lapping the prime-time field.

"There's never been this kind of distance between the No. 1 show and the next show in the history of television," Darnell said. "It's beyond being a television hit. When you talk about it in the same way that you talk about other successes, it's really not relative. It's a cultural phenomenon rather than just a television hit. If this show lost 50 percent of its audience, it still would be considered a smash-hit television show."

But one person who believes "Idol" deserved to slip last year is the show's notoriously blunt Brit-wit judge, Simon Cowell.

"I think last year just wasn't one of our better seasons," Cowell told TV critics last week during a telephone conference. "And you get that on all of these types of competition shows. You get great years, and then you get some not-so-great years. The good news is that, what we've seen from the audition shows, this is a much better season than last year. We always say on this show that we can't guarantee that we will find a superstar. We'll do our best, but we're at the mercy of who shows up at the auditions."

Also returning, of course, are host Ryan Seacrest and Cowell's fellow judges, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson.

"I go into this season a lot more optimistic than I went in last year," Cowell said. "Certainly Paula and Randy went on record last year saying the bar has been raised and this is going to be one of the best years and all that nonsense. I didn't go along with it. I didn't believe it. I will go on record this year and say it is one of the strongest lineups we've had."

Many reasons are cited for the "Idol" phenomenon. But everyone, including Cowell, agrees that Fox was wise to limit the series to one competition each year.

"It's not on all the time," said Richard Huff, author of "Reality Television" (Praeger, 2006). "And that has made it must-see television. Certainly the early rounds with the weak singers and trying to find that gem among them creates water-cooler gossip and Internet buzz that builds interest. And, finally, it's a good show. Say what you like about reality shows, it's the closest thing we have to family fun."

Cowell believes that "other networks would have put it on two or three times a year, and we would have lasted three to four years before people got sick to death of us." And historian Bianculli believes that Cowell's honesty is "what has kept the show sharp and entertaining."

Fox's Darnell says the appeal is a blend of "fascinating judges and the idea that America really feels like it participates in the process where the winner can actually become a superstar."

Robert Abelman, a communications professor at Cleveland State University, thinks "the bottom line is that the program sells the dream of becoming a star — the dream of being plucked out of the ordinary and thrust in the spotlight."

Whatever the reason for its popularity, "American Idol" is crucial to Fox's health as a network.

"It's the most important show to any one network in the history of television," Darnell said. "We're traditionally fourth place in the fall, and by the end of the spring we're No. 1. And the show is 40-plus hours every year, which is the equivalent of two scripted dramas. We come to life in January, and 'Idol' gives us that life."

It will be even more important with the Writers Guild of America strike halting production of scripted dramas and comedy. This has left Fox without original episodes of such second-half stalwarts as "24" and "House."

But with the other networks coping with similar shortages, "American Idol" could give Fox an even greater programming advantage in a year when it also has the Super Bowl.

"You put it into a strike season, and all of a sudden it's a monster gobbling up everything in sight," Bianculli said. "It's such a position of strength."

The strike creates a scenario where "Idol" has "the ability to suck even more viewers into the vortex," Abelman said. "It's a monster against first-run television. It has the potential to do even more against strike programming."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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