At first glance, the numbers look bad: American Idol's season premiere was down nearly 5 million viewers from last year's, the biggest season-to-season drop in franchise history.
At second glance, the numbers don't look bad at all: AI was Wednesday's dominant show, averaging 21.6 million, per estimates, and scoring a still-huge, if diminished, 7.4 demo rating among 18-to-49-year-olds.
So, which is it? Is Idol over—or not?
Let's examine both sides of the argument, starting with...
1. America's Got Talent, The Voice and The X Factor Have Sapped Its Power: Or tapped out its audience. How many vocal runs can an ear stand? How many talent competitions can a viewer sit down for? Idol's success hasn't began imitation, it's begat a lot of imitation, and fatigue is setting in.
2. Nothing Lasts Forever: It happened to The Cosby Show. It happened to CSI. It would've happened to Seinfeld, too, if Seinfeld had tried to push its luck into a second decade. No long-running show is No. 1 forever. Numbers-wise, Idol has been doing the slow fade since, no lie, Sanjaya Malakar was voted off midway through season six, back in 2007.
IT'S NOT OVER
1. It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish: Last year, Idol posted its smallest-ever debut (not including season one), and suffered, at the time, its biggest-ever season-to-season drop. But by the time Scotty McCreery was being doused with confetti, the franchise was enjoying its biggest finale in years.
2. It's Not Bragging When It's True: As Idol's powers-that-be told TV critics this month, its show is the one show that regularly produces stars who regularly sell music. That's the real X factor, and AI has it.
3. It's Not Over 'Til It's Over: Until another show actually beats American Idol, it's still No. 1. And make no mistake: Idol was No. 1 last night. Unless tonight's episode tops it, it'll probably be the week's No. 1 (non-football) show. The bottom line: It's not over; it's No. 1.