NEW YORK – Whether to watch Simon Cowell’s withering put-downs or discover the next potential star, a record-setting 26.5 million viewers tuned in for Tuesday night’s return of “American Idol” on Fox.
Even for what is turning out to be the winter of reality TV on the broadcast networks, these were stunning numbers.
Excluding sporting events, it was the most-watched night ever for the Fox network, which began airing prime-time shows in 1987. It eclipsed the 22.8 million people who watched Kelly Clarkson (news) win the first “American Idol” competition in September.
“We’re having a very happy day at Fox,” said Entertainment President Gail Berman. “We certainly didn’t expect to come close to the finale’s numbers, and to exceed them by 16 percent is a dream come true.”
The conventional wisdom was that “American Idol,” a classic summertime diversion, would have trouble drawing an audience during the winter when faced with tougher competition.
Its success gives Fox, which has been struggling this television season, its second big hit in a month, joining “Joe Millionaire,” which was seen by more than 17 million viewers last week (as was ABC’s “The Bachelorette”).
Fox is moving quickly to capitalize.
Its newsmagazine, “The Pulse,” comes back to the schedule next week and its top two stories are an interview with “Joe Millionaire” Evan Marriott’s family and interviews with the previous night’s “American Idol” contestants.
Cowell, the quipping British judge who seems to enjoy bringing contestants to tears, unleashed his share of insults in Tuesday’s show.
“If you lived 2,000 years ago and sang like that, I think they would have stoned you,” he said to one hapless singer.
Berman, who heard the good ratings news when a bell went off on the fax machine in her bedroom at 5:30 a.m., said she expected Wednesday’s numbers to fall off as “American Idol” competed with Trista Rehn on “The Bachelorette” — but not too much.
“We think we’ll both be standing in the morning,” she said.