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As Fox's 'American Idol' Audience Ages, CBS Wins Younger Viewers

Winner Candice Glover performing at the "American Idol" finale on May 16 in Los Angeles

Photograph by Matt Sayles/Invision via AP Photo

Winner Candice Glover performing at the "American Idol" finale on May 16 in Los Angeles

The reign of Fox (NWS) has ended. After eight years of dominating the all-important 18-49 age bracket with hit shows such as Family Guy and The Mindy Project, the network has lost the coveted top spot to CBS (CBS), which surged ahead on the popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory and NCIS. There’s a further reason why CBS was able to reclaim the younger audience for the first time in two decades: Viewers of one of Fox’s most reliably popular shows, American Idol, aren’t as young as they used to be.

When American Idol made its debut in 2002, the median viewer’s age was 31. Idol was a hit with college kids and twentysomethings, and a whopping 23 million people tuned in to the first season’s finale to see Kelly Clarkson win. The age of the typical Idol viewer has risen steadily every year and is now a whopping 51 years old. That’s just the average age, mind you, which means an awful lot of people over 51 are also watching. (Perhaps that’s why contestants have recently been singing hits from the 1980s and ’90s, such as Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight and Elton John’s Circle of Life.) According to Horizon Media, Idol’s average audience size has dropped by half over the past two years, all the way down to nearly 10 million.

Can CBS hold onto the young demographic in the coming season? It’s hard to say. According to Forrester Research (FOR), 27 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 now watch at least five hours of television online per week, which makes it harder for TV stations to get their attention. What’s worse, their online medium of choice is usually Netflix (NFLX); only 17 percent tune into TV networks’ individual websites. It’s difficult to predict what this evolving media landscape will look like in the next few years, but one thing seems certain: It’s getting less and less likely that Steve Carrell will shout an American Idol winner’s name the next time he’s waxed.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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