By now you’ve probably heard the news… for the first time ever American Idol is starting to look vulnerable.

Yep, Wednesday’s opening night ratings for the first show of the 2011 season plunged a painful 17% in total viewers (to 21.93 million) and an even more disturbing 24% in the 18-49 demo (from a 9.8 to a 7.4). And the trend continued last night – with Idol even BEATEN by CBS’s Big Bang Theory and not even reaching 18 million. Ouch!

Now first up let’s just say these are still great ratings. American Idol is now in its 11th year – and for a show that old to be scoring over 20 million viewers for its opening night is pretty darn incredible. Most shows would be thrilled to come even close to those numbers.

However, those ratings do represent a significant chink in the veteran talent show’s armor. For years American Idol grew season after season, becoming such a ratings monster that it virtually crushed its competition. Sure this week’s premiere did hurt competing shows (most notably the NBC ‘comedy’ line-up of Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea – but that’s no big feat!) – but ABC’s line up remained generally unscathed. Heck Modern Family still scored a 5.1 in the 18-49 demo, a feat that would have been unthinkable when Idol was at its peak.

So what went wrong?

Well to be honest I think everyone in the TV industry saw this one coming. I tweeted a couple of days ago that for the first ever I wasn’t planning to watch the Idol premiere, and actually had little enthusiasm for this year’s show in general. I’ve talked many times here on the site about what a disappointing year the 2011 season was – bland contestants, hackneyed show themes and a judging panel who seemed incapable of uttering even the slightest word of criticism. When every contestant is ‘amazing’, ‘beautiful’ and a ‘superstar’ Idol pretty much loses its purpose.

Last year’s winner was Scotty McCreery, a country singer who has performed well in the album charts. But he’s also the fourth white male guitar playing singer in a row – and the last 3 have all struggled in the charts (David Cook started big his second album flopped, while Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze both saw their debuts underperform). If Idol stops producing stars than once again – what’s its purpose?

But I think the main factor hurting the return of Idol this year was complacency. Fox barely put any effort into their 2012 campaign – those posters with the judges all scrunched up together in close up were just hideous! Then there’s the fact that new judges Steven Tyler and J. Lo just aren’t fresh faces for the show anymore. A lot of people – myself included – tuned in last year for the curiosity factor. But Idol can’t rely on a judging panel shake up this year – and yet have made no significant changes to the format. So Idol ends up feeling pretty stale.

Let’s not forget the increased new competition from The X Factor and The Voice. Neither are in Idol’s league quite yet but who knows where the ratings for all three shows will be by the end of the year.

So what do you think? Did you tune into the Idol premiere – and if not, why not? Is the show past its prime – and how can it get its mojo back? Comment away…