January 18, 2006

‘American Idol’ returns to record season debut

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - More than 35 million people watched
"American Idol" return to the Fox television network, the
biggest audience yet for a season premiere of the hit talent
show, Nielsen Media Research said on Wednesday.

The two-hour debut of Season 5 on Tuesday, featuring
celebrity judge Simon Cowell viciously critiquing aspiring pop
stars auditioning in Chicago, averaged 35.5 million viewers,
according to preliminary figures.

Early episodes of the show focus on tryouts around the
country to select semifinalists who come to Hollywood, where
they compete in weekly elimination rounds for a shot at fame
and a recording contract.

Cowell was at his brutal best on Tuesday, comparing one
woman's voice to the sound of screeching cats and urging a male
contestant to shave off his beard, put on a dress and become a
female impersonator.

Except for ABC's telecast of the Rose Bowl college football
championship earlier this month, which drew 35.6 million
viewers, the return of "Idol" ranked as the most watched U.S.
television program so far during the 2005-2006 season, Nielsen

In addition to surpassing the first four "Idol" premieres
in total audience, the start of the fifth edition was the
show's most highly rated season opener among viewers aged 18 to
49, the demographic most prized by advertisers.

The final episode of Season 2, in which Ruben Studdard was
crowned the winner over Clay Aiken, holds the record as the
most watched "American Idol" broadcast -- at 38.1 million
viewers overall.

The show generally has gained momentum as each competition
progresses and was the top-rated U.S. television series last

Aside from becoming Fox's most important property, it also
has become an incubator for fresh talent in the recording

All eight winners and runners-up from the first four
editions of the show have been signed to either J Records, RCA
Records or Arista Records under Sony BMG's RCA Music Group.

The first champion, Kelly Clarkson, has gone on to earn a
Grammy nomination and to sell nearly 7 million U.S. copies of
her first two albums, "Thankful" and "Breakaway," according to
Nielsen SoundScan.

Fox is a unit of News Corp. Ltd.