i>IDOL ON TOP, BUT RATINGS FALL ON NIGHT #2

On its second night of the season, Fox's American Idol trounced every show in sight, but its audience was well below that for the comparable show a year ago. Wednesday night's two-hour Idol prelim averaged a 17.6 rating and a 26 share (30.28 million viewers) between 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. That compared to a 21.6/31 (36.94 million viewers) for the second night of the season last year -- a decline of nearly 20 percent. Still, the ratings for Idol beat the combined ratings for ABC, CBS, and NBC, whose ratings were also down from a year ago.

STRIKE? WHAT STRIKE?

The television networks will not be lacking new scripted TV shows to air over the next several months if the strike of the Writers Guild of America continues. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that they have more than 100 new episodes ready to roll out. The problem, the wire service observed, is that few of those episodes are "fan favorites." Episodes of the most popular series, A.P. noted, have been rationed "like a hike lost in the desert with a half-empty canteen." One of these, it noted, is an episode of House that Fox intends to air after the Feb. 2 Super Bowl game. Thus far, network ratings have fallen only 5 percent for the season from last year, but they were already down before the strike began. In an interview with today's (Thursday) New York Post, Steve Sternberg, director of audience analysis at ad buyer Magna Global, observed, "Despite no new breakout hits, the combined ratings of the five broadcast networks are down by percentages in line with normal audience erosion we've seen in recent years."

BRITNEY REMAINS RATINGS WINNER FOR TABLOID TV

The latest tribulations of Britney Spears fired up the ratings of the syndicated entertainment magazines last week but proved to be disastrous for Dr. Phil McGraw. According to Broadcasting & Cable, Entertainment Tonight saw its ratings soar a whopping 26 percent during the week ending January 6 -- with much of the rise attributed to its Friday, Jan. 4 coverage of Spears's enforced hospitalization, when ratings climbed 34 percent over the previous Friday. Ratings for Extra leaped 20 percent. Inside Edition saw its ratings climb 15 percent from the previous week, while Access Hollywood's numbers were up 14 percent, and Insider, 11 percent. Meanwhile, the New York Daily News reported that, despite canceling his planned "intervention" show involving the pop star, bookers for Dr. Phil have been having difficulty lining up celebrity guests to appear on his 1,000th show. One source told the newspaper, "Nobody wants to go near it" since the Spears episode. Although the newspaper also claimed that Dr. Phil's popularity has also plummeted, the latest ratings indicated that he remained second only to Oprah Winfrey as the highest-rated daytime talk-show host, averaging a 4.0 rating to Winfrey's 4.7.

FOX NEWS CHANNEL TO GET SUPER BOWL PUSH

The Fox broadcast network, which is the only major broadcast network without a nightly newscast or a regular news magazine show -- and which rarely offers even news specials -- plans to showcase the talent at its corporate siblings, Fox News Network and Fox Business Channel, as well as the reporters at its local Fox stations, on Super Bowl Sunday, February 3. It announced Wednesday that it plans to air a three-hour special, covering February 5's Super Tuesday primaries, alongside its coverage of the football game, with Shepard Smith of Fox News anchoring from Glendale, AZ, the site of the Super Bowl. (Smith said on his Fox News program Wednesday night, "I'm not entirely sure what we're going to do, but it's getting me to the Super Bowl.") Co-anchors will be Bill Hemmer and Megyn Kelly in New York. Reporters from local Fox stations in states where presidential primaries will be held on Super Tuesday will offer coverage of the three major Democratic candidates and the five major Republican contenders.

Brian B.