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"American Idol": Can Its 8th Season fight Gravity

"American Idol" launches its eighth season Tuesday night and everyone's watching the ratings numbers to see how the aging giant holds up.

Nearly 32 million people tuned in to Idol's 2008 finale, but its ratings through the season slipped by a couple million viewers and its viewership skewed to a less desirable older demographic.

There's no question that Idol will continue to be huge, but it's like fighting gravity-- all TV shows, especially reality TV, fade with time. Idol has held up remarkably well, and it'll surely remain in the top five, but can it still be number one every night it's on?

Idol is hugely important for News Corp's Fox. . Idol defines Fox's entire spring season—it's not just about ratings and ad revenues from Idol itself. Idol boosts ratings for the shows following Idol and thanks to promos in the show, generates awareness and revenues for Fox's entire programming lineup.

To keep viewers interested this year Fox is shaking things up.

The show is adding a new judge and tweaking the format. This year the show will rush through the really amateur early contestants, getting to the good voices earlier, and bringing more of the potential-stars to Hollywood. This year the show is bringing back a wild-card round it used in the first two seasons. And to try to make viewers feel more connected to the show's stars, they'll include more backstage footage and info about their lives. This could help spice things up, but the show also risks alienating loyal fans.

And with the recession creating a downturn across the ad industry, it'll be interesting to see how and if it affects Idol's premium advertising. Beleaguered automaker Ford is one of the show's main sponsors. We'll see how long that can last considering how much the automakers are scrutinizing their spending.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.