But "American Idol" ended up in a vulnerable position, coming off a May finale that drew 21.5 million viewers as Phillip Phillips was crowned the newest winner.
It was a record low finish and followed a pattern of declining viewership for the once-inevitably top-rated series, not to mention a pattern of "white guys with guitars," as fans describe the show's recent string of similar winners.
The series ended the 2011-12 season as No. 2 with an average 20 million viewers for the Wednesday performance episodes, just edging third-place "CSI" on CBS (19.7 million) and ABC's top-rated "Sunday Night Football" (20.7 million).
"Idol" still rules among the most-watched talent shows, topping ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and NBC's "The Voice." But the Fox show is fighting to keep advertiser-favored young viewers, with "The Voice" nearly equaling its audience among adults 18 to 49.
Fox, which from the start has protected "Idol" by programming it just once a year, has now diluted its uniqueness with a family competitor, Cowell's "The X Factor," which debuted last fall. After a disappointing start, the show underwent its own judges' shakeup to add Demi Lovato and Britney Spears.
"American Idol" hasn't been helped by a run of champions who have failed to achieve the career sizzle of Hudson, Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson.
The winner, however, ultimately is up to the audience. The judges are in the network's and producers' control, and their next moves are critical ones.
AP Television Writer David Bauder and AP Music Editor Nekesa Mumbi Moody in New York contributed to this report.
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