'Dancing' takes leap in the ratings

KELSEY MCNEAL/ASSOCIATED PRESSDenise Richards and her partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy perform during Monday's ''Dancing with the Stars.'' KELSEY MCNEAL/ASSOCIATED PRESSDenise Richards and her partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy perform during Monday's ''Dancing with the Stars.'' (KELSEY MCNEAL/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By Jill Serjeant
Reuters / March 14, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - Television's dancing stars nipped at the heels of the wannabe singers on No. 1 talent show "American Idol" this week, posing a threat to the jewel in Fox's ratings crown for the first time in six years.

The season premiere of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" drew the largest opening audience ever Monday for the four year-old ballroom dance spectacle, scoring 22.8 million viewers and causing industry watchers to wonder whether the reign of "Idol" atop TV ratings charts is now in jeopardy.

But as narrow as the viewership gap was this week, experts say "Idol" should beat back the challenge from "Dancing."

At stake are tens of millions of advertising dollars for the shows' networks - ABC for "Dancing" and Fox for "Idol."

"I don't think 'Idol' is going to lose its mantle as the most-watched television show," said James Hibberd, senior reporter with entertainment newspaper the Hollywood Reporter. "I do think that with this great start for 'Dancing,' there is a chance that this year could be tighter than ever."

Ratings for "Idol" are down about 9 percent in total viewers at the midway point of its current eighth season compared to last year. The show's hold on younger viewers in the 12- to 34-year-old age group coveted by advertisers is off about 16 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.

While it remains the most-watched TV program, 2009 "Idol" audiences are about 24 to 25 million compared to last year's season average of 28.1 million. Wednesday night's program, which saw the first departure of contestants, reached 24.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

Industry watchers note TV viewership continues to slide across the board as it has in recent years. Only CBS among the major networks is growing its prime-time audience - by about 3 percent. The industry trend is likely a key factor in the ratings slippage for "Idol."

But there is little doubt that "Dancing" has amped up its promotional wattage this season, and the program has been helped by a little of its own drama.

The eleventh hour loss of injured singer Jewel and celebrity journalist Nancy O'Dell turned into the series's gain as its new season opened to curiosity and network hype over their replacements.

ABC scored a coup by bringing in jilted fiancee Melissa Rycroft from its own resurgent reality dating show "The Bachelor," which helped boost numbers.

A true test of viewer interest will come next week when the two shows go head-to-head Tuesday night. But "Idol" comes in with built-in advantages.

"Dancing" generally appeals to a slightly older, 50-plus viewers whose buying patterns are mostly set, compared to impressionable young audiences.

"Advertisers will pay a premium for young viewers," said Brad Adgate, senior vice-president of research at Horizon Media. "I think 'Idol' is still the front runner because they have a younger audience and they deliver more eyeballs."

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