There's much hissing about American Idol's swandiving numbers—lowest finale ever! down 10% from last year, which was already low!—but in this modern world, it's really nothing to worry about. (Or, if you hate Idol, to get excited about). Idol is still winning where it counts.
Where it counts is the margin it wins over its competitors, a large percentage that keeps canyoning open wider and wider as the years go on. See, ratings numbers are in the first curling and browning stages of being rendered useless. Because people are stopping watching television all across the board—from Animal Planet to Zoey 101—what with DVRs and magic television-playing computers and so much choice that one just sits staring blankly at the black screen, overwhelmed with having to make a decision.
So it's not the millions, whether they be 34 or 23, that are watching. What's important is that Idol beat the number two program on the air (Desperater Housewives) by a whopping 72% in the key adult demo. Basically, anyone who was watching TV last night was watching American Idol. And that's all that advertisers can have the power to care about anymore. If there were only three people left watching television the whole world over, the show that two of those people were watching would be the golden goose.
Idol is reaching that event horizon where all of its subsidiary offshoots are the real cash crop, and TV advertising is reaching the sad, hobo point where it becomes about quality, not massive slobbering quantity. So a 10% ratings dip from last year really means bupkis. It's still the most dominant show the Nielsens have ever seen, and it'll continue to be so until that terrible marketing/merchandising house of cards crumbles. Which could be soon! Or it could be ten years from now! Either way, don't look to the stand alone volume to augur Idol's demise. Only when some new young buck comes strutting along and knocks the karaoke kompetition off its number one block should anyone start worrying.
Or, you know, celebrating.