American Idol
Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, and Randy Jackson are the judges on Fox's "American Idol" this season. Fox

News this week that “American Idol” is hemorrhaging viewers has some people wondering whether it will soon be voted off the air. The answer is, don’t hold your breath.

Fox’s erstwhile ratings juggernaut launched into its 12th season on Wednesday with the benefit of a much-hyped feud between new judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. But the anticipation of tension between the two divas wasn’t enough to turn the creaky talent competition into a must-see event, at least for those who have already abandoned ship.

About 17.9 million viewers watched the two-hour premiere, according to Nielsen figures cited by the Hollywood Reporter. That’s down 19 percent from last season, which was already down a staggering 24 percent from the year before. Wednesday’s bow was the least-watched “Idol” premiere in the show’s history, excluding its first year, when it made its debut during the summer. It’s a sign that the end is near -- or at least getting closer -- for the house that Simon Cowell built.

Comparatively speaking, the show is still a ratings powerhouse, easily dominating the Wednesday night time slot and attracting a viewership in the key 18-49 age demographic group that beat ABC, CBS, and NBC combined. But the steady audience erosion is undeniable, and it’s impossible to overstate what that erosion means for the flagship television network of the News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWSA), which has relied upon “Idol’s” ratings security blanket for longer than much of its target audience can remember. To put things in perspective, the show made its debut when the top-rated series were “Friends,” “CSI,” and “E.R.”

Today, of course, reality-TV competitions abound, which for “Idol” is part of the problem. The show’s lackluster premiere on Wednesday comes amid plenty of competition from fresher, more buzzworthy clones such as Fox's “The X Factor” and NBC’s successful “The Voice.” Meanwhile, “Idol” has never recovered from the departure of Cowell, whose famously salty critiques gave the show both a personality and an identity. The current judges' panel -- Randy Jackson, Keith Urban, as well as Carey and Minaj -- appears to lack even a single noteworthy characteristic outside Minaj’s Muppetesque wigs.

Perhaps even more significant than the decline in viewership is the sense that “Idol” is becoming irrelevant. More than any other reality-TV competition, the series has churned out performers who have gone on to outlive their lineage (for better or for worse: Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood, and Kelly Clarkson, to name a few). That celebrity-factory process has always given the show a kind of bragging rights, allowing “Idol” to live up to its name -- and its promise that anyone with a skin thick enough to withstand a few verbal jabs can be a star. But, eight years after the launch of YouTube, it almost seems like a bygone concept.

Fox has downplayed “Idol’s” shrinking audience, calling the ratings drop-off “expected” in a press release. Anticipating the decline, Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly told the New York Daily News this month that the show "can [drop] down in double digits for the rest of its natural life and it would still be the No. 1 show on TV.” For anyone who finds that a depressing thought, hang in there.