Long the nation's most popular television series, "American Idol"has suddenly started to hit some flat notes — and it's threatening the money-making machine that has vaulted the Fox network to the top of the broadcast race.
Although it's still a big hit that other networks would love to have, "Idol's" ratings this month slid to the lowest level since its debut in summer 2002. And last week for the first time, "Idol" was beaten by a head-to-head competitor,CBS'surging sitcom"The Big Bang Theory,"in the major ratings categories.
The downward trend for a show that television executives call the Death Star, for its record of annihilating opponents, can be traced to a crowded marketplace of similar programs, waning viewer curiosity over two new judges and advancing age — the show is in its 11th season.
Further evidence that the glut of reality singing shows is taking its toll surfaced with a massive retooling of Fox's other entry in the sweepstakes, "The X Factor,"which failed to deliver the knockout ratings predicted by its star and producer, Simon Cowell, last fall.
On Monday, Cowell sacked three of his on-air colleagues, including former "Idol" judge Paula Abdul.
Meanwhile, NBC returns with the second season of "The Voice" on Sunday, giving it a special boost by slotting it directly after its Super Bowl telecast.
Fox executives in January had predicted a ratings drop for "Idol," but the falloff – more than 20% – has been far steeper than they anticipated.
That could potentially put the network in the position of offering free advertising time as compensation for commercial time bought before the season started. The major advertisers on "Idol" areCoca-Cola, Ford and AT&T, companies that have far-reaching deals involving products featured on the show as well as traditional commercials.
That doesn't mean "Idol" has lost all its power: Last Wednesday's episode was still the No. 1 program for the week, averaging 19.7 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. Fox executives point to early signs that viewers are watching the program on DVRs more than in the past, which will boost ultimate ratings. Another network "would gladly take the show off Fox's hands," Adgate noted wryly.
A Fox spokeswoman said executives would not comment for the record. Cowell and his spokesman did not return repeated messages and a representative of "Idol's" creator and executive producer, Simon Fuller, said he was unavailable.
Although they are pillars of the same network, the people behind the cameras on "American Idol" and "X Factor" have been tangling for years. Fox lawyers are scrambling to settle a lawsuit filed last year by Fuller against Cowell over "The X Factor."
Fuller sued Cowell in 2004 for copyright infringement over the British version of "X Factor," claiming "striking similarities to the 'Idol' format." According to court papers, Fox believed the British litigation could have a "ruinous effect on 'American Idol' and other business interests" and brokered a settlement.
Under the 2005 settlement, Fox promised to keep "X Factor" off the air during "Idol's" January through May run and give Fuller, a British impresario previously known for developing the Spice Girls into a hit-making act, an executive producer credit on "X Factor" — even though he had no operational role on the show.
Last year, Fuller filed suit again, saying that Fox had reneged on the credit arrangement; that suit is still pending and, according to Fuller's rep, settlement talks are underway.
Fox executives scoff at the notion, however, that "Idol" might be reaching the end of its glory days. It's still a top show in its 11th season — a feat that has not been equaled since"Cheers"was a hit for NBC nearly 20 years ago.
Equally important: "Idol" is still producing musical stars. Last year's winner, Scotty McCreery, released a smash country album that recalled the early successes of another "Idol" victor, Carrie Underwood.
And the first "Idol" winner, Kelly Clarkson, just grabbed the No. 1 spot on the iTunes singles chart. Her song has a chorus that Fox executives might want to sing along with: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
Times staff writer Joe Flint contributed to this report.