New “American Idol” Taylor Hicks wasn’t the only winner on Wednesday night.
Fox capped a stellar fifth season for the hit competition when an average of 36.4 million people tuned in to the finale — spiking to almost 43 million the last half hour — according to Nielsen Media Research.
The “Idol” TV audience was only about two million viewers shy of the Oscars for being the most-watched television event of the year after the Super Bowl.
“The show obviously has become a national phenomenon, beyond a television hit,” said Mike Darnell, head of alternative programming for Fox. “It really is like the Super Bowl — an actual event, not just a big TV show.”
The huge audience watched the prematurely gray Alabaman Hicks win out over 22-year-old Katherine McPhee, of Los Angeles.
Only the 2003 finale between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken (who showed off his new hairstyle on Wednesday’s show), pulled in more viewers, with 38.1 million. But that was deceptive: the 2003 show was only one hour, compared to this year’s two-hour event. During the second hour this year, more than 40 million people were watching, Nielsen said.
The audience shot up to nearly 43 million for the last half hour, when Prince performed and Hicks’ victory was announced.
Last year’s finale, with Carrie Underwood winning, was seen by 30.3 million.
Much to the surprise of Fox and horror of its rivals, “American Idol” was up in popularity over last year all along, all the way back to when it began in January. That’s unusual for a show that’s been on the air for four years and put out five seasons of programming.
“The people who were resisting it started to watch it,” Darnell said, “and once they start watching, it’s very addictive television.”
Fox and show producers have also worked to improve the middle rounds of the competition, where viewership has flagged in the past, he said.
Darnell, in a state of tired euphoria after having stayed up all night waiting to see the ratings, said he believed it was the most entertaining two hours of television he’s seen the past few years.
In a sign that strong programs can succeed despite withering competition, ABC’s two-hour “Lost” season finale on Wednesday also did well, with 17.8 million viewers. Its first hour competed head-to-head with the final hour of “American Idol.”
Clearly, there was some quick button pushing on the TV remotes: the “Lost” audience grew to 19.3 million viewers during its last half hour.
After “American Idol” clobbered the Grammy Awards in direct competition earlier this season, the cream of the music industry got the message. The final “Idol” show featured guest appearances from Prince, Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige and Meat Loaf. Throughout the season, established artists have seen their album sales shoot up after appearances on the Fox hit.
“Just a couple of years ago it wasn’t that cool to be on the show,” Darnell said. “Now I can’t imagine after Prince came on that anybody would say no.”