Syesha Mercado by Frank Micelotta/FOX
The big TV story of the moment is the ratings decline of American Idol.

But let's get real - of course the show's numbers are down. Once a show has been No. 1 for a few seasons, it can only go one way. It's amazing that Idol held up as well as it has. By the time the current TV season is over, Fox projects that Idol's ratings will still be ahead of what they were in the mega-hit's second iteration that started in January 2003. In that year, the use of digital video recorders or TiVo was scant. There was no YouTube. The main business of iTunes was music. There were no hit TV shows to stream over the Internet. Digital cable and satellite TV have given viewers dozens more channels than they had just a few years ago.

New technologies have changed the TV viewing experience into a more personal endeavor. But Idol continues to thrive because it's still a collective, inclusive event that different generations can watch together. Almost every season, 30 percent of the audience is made up of viewers aged 35 to 49, a group that includes a lot of parents watching with kids.

Kids, teens and young women are the demos that are down the most for Idol this year. It makes sense. Young viewers are the most fickle and the first to tire of any show. If you started watching Idol when you were 8 years old, you're not likely to stick with it if you're trying to be a cool teenager. Young women have also been siphoned off by the surfeit of reality shows that appeared this season as a result of the writers' strike.

The fact that there are fewer African-Americans in the later rounds of the competition has likely led to a steep drop among black viewers. None of the most popular contestants specializes in country music, a genre that always fares well on TV. Of course, the make-up of the contestants is in the hands of the voting viewers once it gets to the Top 12. But Idol producers do need to take a look at the aspects of the show that they can control. Idol Gives Back is a lovely gesture, but it basically turns the show into a telethon for a week, and for the second consecutive year it drove some viewers away. Andrew Lloyd Webber? Must be a Brit thing.

Fox executives put the show and its ratings under a microscope every week to figure out what works and what doesn't. But if they play their cards right, the end of the Idol juggernaut will be a long way off. Idol may not be as big as it used to be, but it's still a lot bigger than everything else in prime time. As long as that's the case, it will be a powerful draw to advertisers and a big moneymaker for Fox.

So why the press pile-on regarding the ratings? Envious execs at the competing networks are putting the word out about the numbers, and Fox's scheduling chief Preston Beckman doesn't blame them. He'd be doing the same thing if Idol aired on another network. But he warns that the press and other TV outlets should be careful about wishing for Idol's downfall. The show has provided fresh faces and fodder for morning programs, late-night shows and the press.

" Idol has become a national event," he says. "The show not only helps Fox, but every broadcast network, every newspaper syndicate and every one of those entertainment shows. It feeds everything." - Stephen Battaglio

Related:
" Idol Boss Talks Shocking Exits, Sliding Ratings
" The Great American Idol Blog