LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Fox network, long a second-tier upstart beside the Big Three U.S. broadcasters, finished the season as undisputed ratings leader for the first time after a year that saw the TV industry battered by a writers’ strike and other woes.
Fox, a unit of News Corp, owes much of its success to the smash hit talent contest “American Idol,” which remains a pop culture phenomenon and the most-watched show on U.S. television despite a second year of softening ratings.
The upset triumph of rock singer David Cook, 25, over 17-year-old teen favorite David Archuleta in Wednesday’s finale drew nearly 32 million U.S. viewers, up 3 percent from last year’s conclusion, Nielsen Media Research reported on Thursday.
The two-hour broadcast was the second-most-watched episode of the show this season, behind only the 33 million-plus viewers who tuned in for the debut of the program’s seventh installment in January.
For the season as a whole, “American Idol” ended its latest run with year-to-year declines in both overall audience and ratings for viewers aged 18 to 49 — the group most prized by advertisers. In recent weeks, individual episodes also dipped to record ratings lows.
On average, the show tallied about 28.1 million viewers per broadcast this year, compared with 30.8 million at the height of its popularity in 2006 and 30.4 million last year.
It remains to be seen whether “Idol” is in danger of viewer burnout that even the biggest TV hits inevitably face.
In one notable sign of trouble, the show that built Fox into a prime-time powerhouse for young viewers is seeing its audience grow steadily older.
According to Nielsen, the median age of “Idol” viewers has risen to nearly 43 from 34 during the past six years. More than half the audience this year consisted of adults between 35 and 64 years of age.
Blender magazine Editor in Chief Joe Levy said the show’s demographic shift was reflected in its roster of guest stars.
“The producers seem to be courting older viewers with guests like Dolly Parton and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was on the show twice, for God’s sake,” Levy said.
“They’re not forgetting about the kids entirely; they did have Mariah Carey on this year. ... But you also had 59-year old Donna Summer, Bryan Adams, who remembers buying his first six-string in the summer of ‘69, and George Michael, who hasn’t toured in the U.S. in 17 years.”
“Idol” was hardly alone in ratings erosion this year as the broadcast industry faced growing competition from video games, the Internet and cable TV, as well as the popularity of digital video recorders that allow viewers to tape shows and watch them at their leisure.
The TV landscape was made even more rocky by the lack of breakout hits and a 14-week screenwriters’ strike that halted production on prime-time comedies and dramas, forcing networks to run a glut of reruns and reality shows at midseason.
Fox claimed bragging rights for the first time in its two-decade history as the most-watched network in prime time, surpassing longtime leader CBS, and was No. 1 among the 18-to-49 crowd for the fourth straight year.
CBS was No. 2 this season in total viewers and tied with ABC, a unit of the Walt Disney Co, in the 18-49 derby.
The five largest English-language broadcasters — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW — ended the season down 10 percent collectively among young-adult viewers and 7 percent in overall audience. Fox, which also got a big ratings boost this year from the Super Bowl professional football championship, was the only network to expand its audience year to year.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney