MAYBE it's not as shocking as, say, Aussie heartthrob Michael Johns getting voted off the show. But the news still surprises: "American Idol's" ratings are down. Way down, among some viewers.
Could it be that the singing smash, which has entirely reshaped television over the past seven seasons, is finally proving mortal? And if so, what will that mean for Fox, the rest of the TV industry and Ryan Seacrest's career?
At first glance, the erosion doesn't seem so bad. "Idol" has slipped 7% in average total viewers (to 29.2 million, as of last week) compared with last season, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.
"This show has defied the odds," Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman told me Friday. " 'American Idol' has held up better than any other show, scripted or unscripted, on television."
And yet . . . this season the show has shed nearly one-fifth of women viewers ages 18 to 34 -- one of its most important constituencies -- and is down a comparable amount among kids 2 to 11. That's a bad sign, because children and young adults are generally the first to bail on a show that's getting crow's feet.
And the pace of the falloff may be quickening. Last week's performance show, featuring the songs of Mariah Carey, one of the most successful pop singers in history, was the lowest-rated Tuesday "Idol" in five years among TV's most important demographic, adults ages 18 to 49.