Oprah’s Armstrong Confession Threatens Fox Champ ‘Idol’

Lance Armstrong’s doping confession to Oprah Winfrey tomorrow threatens to siphon viewers from “American Idol,” the most-watched TV show for nine years, as the singing competition returns for a new season.

Winfrey’s OWN network airs the first part of her interview with Armstrong at 9 p.m. New York time, halfway into the two-hour, second night of “Idol” on News Corp.’s Fox. The talent show begins its 12th season tonight with a two-hour premiere. Both count women as their largest viewer group.

Winfrey’s interview with the seven-time Tour de France winner, who was stripped of his medals last year, is vying with a heavily promoted “Idol” that’s looking to stem viewer losses with new judges Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Keith Urban. Fox is counting on “Idol” and the new Kevin Bacon drama “The Following” to rebound from a 20 percent drop in ratings this season.

“The median age for ‘Idol’ was over 50 last year and skewed more toward females,” said Brad Adgate, director of research at Horizon Media Inc., an advertising company in New York. “That’s Oprah’s core viewer as well.”

Nicole Nichols, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles-based OWN, and Gaude Paez, a spokeswoman for Fox in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the competing telecasts.

The challenge from Winfrey comes at a turning point for “Idol,” which held its No. 1 spot last season even as viewers shrank 26 percent to 17 million, according to Nielsen data. CBS’s “NCIS” is averaging almost 22 million viewers a night in the current season. At its 2006 peak, “Idol” drew more than 30 million.

For the new season, the producers of “Idol” chose to replace judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, who helped lead an 8.4 percent rise in viewership two years ago. Randy Jackson returns, and is the only original judge left on the show.

Judges Feud

Any hit from Winfrey, 58, will probably be brief. The new judges, including a feuding Carey and Minaj, may renew interest, Adgate said. Viewers who choose Winfrey’s interview over “Idol” can still catch up with a DVR, video-on-demand or Hulu.com. “Idol” was already one of the most DVR-viewed shows, he said.

Armstrong, 41, ended 13 years of denials by acknowledging for the first time during an “emotional” 2 1/2-hour interview that he used performance-enhancing drugs, Winfrey said yesterday on “CBS This Morning.”

“He did not come clean in the manner that I expected,” Winfrey told CBS.

The second half airs at 9 p.m. New York time on Jan. 18.

“We felt that to leave over half of this on the cutting room floor after millions of people have been waiting for years for many of these answers would not be the right thing to do,” Winfrey told CBS.

OWN Ratings

The former daytime host has boosted the audience of her cable channel, owned jointly with Discovery Communications Inc., since taking over as chief executive officer of OWN in July 2011 and hosting “Oprah’s Next Chapter.”

Winfrey’s March 11 interview with Whitney Houston’s family drew almost 4 million viewers to lead all cable shows that night among women ages 25 to 54, according to Nielsen data cited by the network. She’s also scored ratings wins interviewing Rihanna and pastor Joel Osteen.

“Our America With Lisa Ling,” “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” and “Six Little McGhees” were among OWN’s most-watched programs, the network said on Jan. 4.

OWN expects to reach about 85 million U.S. cable TV homes by May, Discovery CEO David Zaslav said at a Dec. 4 investor conference. The network increased its average prime-time audience by 61 percent to 328,000 viewers in the fourth quarter of 2012 from a year earlier. Almost three-fourths were female, according to Nielsen data.

Breaking Even

Zaslav also stuck by his projection that the network would break even in the second half of this year.

Tonight’s “Idol” features auditions from New York, while tomorrow’s episode, up against Winfrey, will show contestants in Chicago.

During the first part of the “Idol” season, contestants vie to make early round cuts and travel to Los Angeles. The audience for “Idol” usually rises in later rounds.

Hosted by Ryan Seacrest, the show’s early episodes feature the city where auditions are taking place, tell stories about a few contestants and end with the judges deciding who advances.

The audience for “Idol” has been declining as the singing competition has aged, attrition that Fox executives have come to expect, according to Mike Darnell, the network’s president of alternative programming.

“It’s still an exceptionally valuable property,” Darnell said at a Jan. 8 TV critics conference in Pasadena, California.

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