One viewer says the contestants, including (from left) finalists David Archuleta, Syesha Mercado, David Cook, and Jason Castro, have been harder to get to know this season.
NEW YORK - The fevered response to the latest loopy Paula Abdul episode, where she judged a phantom performance, just goes to show how American Idol continues to dominate television in its seventh season.
Yet while Idol is still a hit, it's no longer necessarily hip.
You can hear it in the lack of enthusiasm in 14-year-old Katharine Bohrs' voice.
"Last year I was really into it, and the year before that," said the high school freshman from Brookline, Mass. "This year in the beginning I was, but then track started up and I have a lot of homework. It's two hours long and I don't have the time."
She used to watch regularly with a friend. Now her friend records it and watches only occasionally, Bohrs said.
Statistics back up the anecdote. Audience declines for American Idol are steepest among youthful viewers, the people who set the pop culture agenda and are most likely to buy music made by the show's winners. These are not the people you want to turn off.
Make no mistake, American Idol is still the biggest thing on television. It is the reason why Fox will end the TV season later this month as the nation's most-watched network for the first time in history.
The show is averaging 28.7 million viewers this year, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's down 7 percent from the nearly 31 million viewers who watched last year. It's also typical - maybe better than typical: in this writers strike-marred season, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has shed 19 percent of its viewers, Grey's Anatomy is down 20 percent, and Survivor is off 9 percent from last spring's edition.
"We're not in denial that the ratings are down," said Preston Beckman, Fox's chief scheduling executive. "There are things that we can control and there are things that we can't control. I defy anyone to show you a hit show that has been on for seven seasons that is at the level this one is on relative to where it started."
Among women aged 18 to 34, the American Idol audience has slipped 18 percent this year. Isolate teenagers 12 to 17, and the drop is 12 percent.
The median age of an American Idol viewer, once in the mid-30s, is now up to 42, Nielsen said.
And - horror of horrors - viewership is actually UP this season among people aged 50 and over. Those are the folks many television tastemakers pretend don't exist.
At the beginning of American Idol, contestants like winner Kelly Clarkson seemed more sincere and devoted to their singing, said Chrissy Will, 16, a resident of Los Angeles' suburban Orange County. Now they seem more focused on publicity and fame, she said.
"It's completely repetitive," Will said. "It's the same thing as the year before."
Her friend, Tina Oram, 17, said Idol now seems boring and overpromoted. She's more interested in watching dance contests (ABC's Dancing With the Stars is up in the ratings this season.)
"You can't not put your heart into dancing," she said.
Shows focused on the music of Neil Diamond and Andrew Lloyd Webber may also not have been the most youth-friendly choices. But no level of targeted mentoring can trump up the talent.
"The talent this year I don't think is as great as it has been," said Steve Rifkin, rap impresario and founder of Loud Records. "You're not going to hit a home run every year. I still think it's the most powerful show on TV."
Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, and Chris Daughtry set standards for American Idol contestants that are hard to top; last year's winner Jordin Sparks has had two radio hits but so-so record sales. This year has lacked a breakout personality, even in a negative sense. Fans won't soon forget Sanjaya Malakar.
As for this year's contestants, Bohrs, from Massachusetts, just seems disinterested.
"I've only watched half the season so far so I don't know the contestants as well as I did last year," she said. "Last year I felt like I knew them personally and not this season."
Comments like that will likely drive Mike Darnell nuts. The chief of Fox's alternative programming said one of the biggest efforts in the show this year was to try to make the contestants people that the audience felt they knew.
Fox has several theories about the ratings slip this year, foremost that it would have been unusual for it NOT to slip. The writers strike, even though it didn't affect American Idol specifically, siphoned interest from TV in general, Darnell said. Young people are most likely to try new technologies, taking away from time spent in front of the TV, he said.
"You can always do things to get younger viewers back," Beckman said. "I don't think you have lost them forever."
Darnell pointed to MTV for the example it set in making itself over several times to appeal to generations of viewers who never heard of Martha Quinn.
American Idol needs no such overhaul. But the slippage has been noted and will be responded to, said the Fox executives.
"We've never been apathetic about the show, nor have the producers," Darnell said. "Every year there have been changes."