April 25, 2008 — -- It's huge. It's gigantic. It's an unmatched ratings machine that other networks would kill for. So why won't the rumors subside? Could "American Idol" really be in trouble?
Katie Lachter started watching "American Idol" during her last year of law school, which was the mercurial Fox talent show's first season. Now in its seventh incarnation, the show's parade of crooning, wannabe pop stars is still appointment TV.
"It's a really fun and an upbeat thing to watch," said Lachter, now a lawyer in New York. Around her law firm, she said, "it's definitely water cooler talk."
Anne Charity hosts a weekly "Idol" party in her Williamsburg, Va., home.
"We're a regular group of six," said Charity, a linguistics professor. "We like [Idol contestant] David Cook, because he's got that rock thing going on."
Lachter, 29, and Charity, 32, are in the heart of a demographic that television executives and advertisers love to court. But these days, that sought-after group of Idol watchers is shrinking: It's been widely reported that ratings for the Fox Network show are down this season, with a steeper decline among viewers age 18 to 49.
The show has also seen a drop in donations garnered by its "Idol Gives Back" event. Last year, Idol's charity show raised $70 million within a week. This year, two weeks after this month's "Idol Gives Back," the total hit just $65 million.
The numbers are leading both "Idol" fans and foes to ask the same question: Is the seven-year ratings juggernaut on its way out?
The answer, according to critics and television industry watchers who spoke to ABC News, is a resounding "no."
"It's still gigantic and bigger than anything else on television," said Stephen Battaglio, a senior correspondent at TV Guide.
Ben Grossman, the Los Angeles bureau chief for the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable, said that "Idol's" ratings' drop is in line with an overall decline in ratings for network television this year.
The numbers of viewers "Idol" draws, he said, are "still astronomical."
"For a show in its seventh season to still be doing these kinds of numbers is phenomenal," he said. "It's still an absolutely incredible story year after year."
Advertisers certainly haven't been scared away.
The program continues to draw dollars from some of the largest companies in the world. Exxon Mobil, Ford, Coca-Cola and AT&T were all sponsors of this year's "Idol Gives Back..
The slight ratings drop hasn't fazed Ford, which is also an advertiser on the show.
"The show is a great platform for us, and we are very happy with our relationship," Jim Cain, the manager of Ford's North American marketing and sales communications, said through a spokeswoman.
Brian Moore, a writer for RedEye's "Vital Idol," a Chicago Tribune blog, has several pet peeves with the show this year -- Simon Cowell's amusingly outrageous insults have been disappointingly few, he said, and there's "no real standout" among this year's singers.
But he, too, conceded the show's TV dominance.
"It's still the No. 1 thing around. It's pretty much untouchable," Moore said. "No other show can say it's averaging well over 20 million [viewers] a week."
Historically, "Idol" ranks alongside "The Cosby Show" and "All in the Family" in terms of most-watched shows, TV Guide's Battaglio said.
In the 1980s, "The Cosby Show" was the No. 1 show on television for five years running, according to Battaglio. "All in the Family" had a similar five-year run in the '70s.
But "Idol" faces a challenge that neither of those sitcoms did. As Battaglio points out, it doesn't exist in a "three-network universe." Instead, the show competes with entertainment offered by the Internet and hundreds of cable channels, not to mention the slew of other reality shows that hit the airwaves this year during the Hollywood writers strike.
"Idol's" age is also working against it, Battaglio said. Just by being around so long, he said, it's turning younger viewers off.
"They're the most fickle and they're the ones who tend to drift away from things like this," he said. "They've been there and done that."
"It's only natural that after seven years," Battaglio said, "it's not the coolest thing to watch anymore."