Nellie Andreeva

A lot is riding on American Idol at Fox, which usually turns from also-ran to a ratings leader overnight when the reality juggernaut hits the air. The pressure is not as great this season and the network has the Super Bowl. But the scrutiny has never been greater because of the judge overhaul in the wake of original star Simon Cowell’s departure that played out in the blogosphere over the summer. Overall, new judge Steven Tyler is getting good grades for his debut as is new (old) showrunner Nigel Lythgoe for focusing more on the good singers and less on the sideshows. As for the ratings, the question was “How much down will the show return without Simon?” We just got that answered. In the fast nationals, the two-hour American Idol Season 10 premiere drew 26.1 million viewers and a 9.7 rating/26 share among adults 18-49. That was down 13% in viewers and 18% in the 18-49 demo from last year’s premiere and the reality veteran’s lowest-rated season opener since the show’s inauspicious debut in summer 2002. (historical data below) It also represents the show’s biggest ratings drop between seasons. The numbers are expected to get adjusted up in the finals, so the demo decline is projected to be 16%. (The decline is bigger in the demo than in the total viewership because the Idol audience skewed older this year. Hey, one of the judges, Steven Tyler, is 62.) Even with those declines, Idol is poised to remain the highest-rated non-football program on TV by a wide margin, so Fox executives are probably relieved. Last night, Fox beat the combined 4-network average in 18-49 by 47%.

ABC’s Modern Family (4.6/12, 11.1 million) proved its mettle against Idol. The hit comedy, which last night had one of its best episodes this season, was actually up in the demo 10% from last week when schedules were disrupted by the coverage of the Tucson memorial. Also holding up well was ABC’s 8PM anchor The Middle (2.7/8, 8.7 million), down 10% from last week. Both shows posted their best ratings ever against Idol. As expected, worst hit by Idol were the vulnerable shows, CBS’ dancing competition Live to Dance (1.0/3, 5.2 million), which stars former Idol judge Paula Abdul. It barely registered at 8 PM against Idol. Ditto for NBC’s struggling freshman drama Chase (1.0/3, 4.3 million), which flatlined at 9 PM and was down from its Minute to Win It (1.6/4) lead-in.

It was a competitive field at 10 PM. The veteran, NBC’s Law & Order: SVU (2.3/6, 6.9 million) won the demo battle but not by much. In its second regular airing new ABC medical drama Off the Map (2.1/6, 5.8 million) was down 9% from its premiere last week, which was impacted by the scheduling disruptions. In its first tryout on Wednesdays, CBS’ Friday freshman drama Blue Blood (2.0/6, 12.2 million) didn’t pop but drew big audiences and improved The Defenders‘ demo performance in the hour (1.5/5 last week)

Here is historical data for the American Idol season premieres (this year’s ratings are fast nationals, all others are Live+same day)

1/19/11 26.1 million 9.7/26 in adults 18-49

1/12/10 29.95 million 11.8/29

1/13/09 30.45 million 11.7/28

1/15/08 33.48 million 13.8/32

1/16/07 37.44 million 15.8/36

1/17/06 35.53 million 15.3/34

1/18/05 33.58 million 14.0/33

1/19/04 28.96 million 12.9/30

1/21/03 26.50 million  12.4/30

6/11/02 9.85 million 4.8/14

TV Editor Nellie Andreeva - tip her here.