April 14, 2010 at 09:43 PM EDT

Any one who tuned into Dancing With The Stars this week should have heard host Tom Bergeron crow about how the show was the No. 1 series on TV last week — a statistic that no doubt stung folks over at American Idol, TV’s perennial winner that hasn’t exactly broken performance records this season. The audience for Stars has been so impressive this season (an average 22.5 million, up by 4.8 million over the same time last year), that it’s difficult not to question whether Fox’s Death Star is finally showing signs of wear. Even Fox execs admit that it’s shaping up to be the lowest-rated season of Idol among adults 18-49 — a trend that’s no doubt influenced by the nasty perception of how the current crop of contestants can’t sing.

But to say that Fox is wringing its hands over the drop in ratings would be an overstatement. For one, single-digit declines like those suffered by Idol in the key demo (down 5 percent on Tuesdays and 9 percent on Wednesdays) aren’t unusual given the current trend of audience fragmentation. (Veteran favorites like Grey’s Anatomy, CSI and Desperate Housewives are down this season, too.) And Idol still handily beats Dancing With the Stars on Tuesdays, when the two reality shows go head-to-head. Season-to-date, Idol remains the No. 1 show on Tuesdays (a 9.6/24 in 18-49 and 25.9 million viewers) and on Wednesday (9.1/23, 24.7 million). Even if Idol went on to lose roughly 10 percent a year in the demographic, Fox projects the competition show will still remain one of TV’s top five for years to come. (Assuming, of course, that no new series come along and shake up the ranks — and TV is certainly overdue for another big tent reality show in the vein of Idol and even Dancing with the Stars).

Still, Fox is well aware of the challenges they face in keeping Idol relevant, especially given Simon Cowell’s departure after this season. “We would all be in denial if we didn’t believe Simon leaving will have some impact,” admits Preston Beckman, Fox’s head of scheduling. “We spend a lot of time doing everything we can to keep this show alive and well into its ninth season. It’s still an amazing show and still delivering for us.”

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