'American Idol' returns to worst premiere ratings yet despite Harry Connick Jr.

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Unlucky 13?

American Idol returned Wednesday night to once again post its lowest premiere rating ever. The 13th season of Fox’s veteran reality series delivered 15 million viewers and a 4.6 adults 18-49 rating, down 23 percent from last year — even though new judge Harry Connick Jr. is getting glowing reviews from critics and fans.

The performance continues an overall downward trend for the series since 2006, and the show’s premiere ratings have dropped consistently since 2010. It’s a testament to how massive the show’s ratings were in its early years that Idol has managed to fall in the Nielsen numbers for eight years straight and still deliver strong ratings. But there was some mild hope this year might avoid yet another dip given how strong the drops have been — surely it was time for a least a little uptick, right? By comparison, The Voice debuted to 14.9 million viewers and a 5.1 adult demo rating in the fall, marking the first time Idol has premiered to a lower demo rating than its NBC rival. At least Idol can claim it won the night — the show hugely dominated Wednesday’s ratings.

As a counterpoint, Fox noted that this is the network’s biggest night of entertainment programming so far this season and the first time in three years that Idol has returned higher than its previous year’s finale.

Idol‘s tone during last night’s Austin audition kick-off was notably friendlier among the judges, a departure from last season’s tense drama-filled panel that featured Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey (both of whom are no longer on the show). Some critics have suspected that Idol is taking a cue from the success of The Voice, which has a panel that’s often praised for its feel-good camaraderie. Connick Jr. shared the table with returning judges Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez (the latter returning to the show after a one-year absence). Fox also made changes behind the scenes this year, shedding longtime producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick and bringing aboard Per Blankens, Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager.

One question hanging over these numbers: Will A&E’s Duck Dynasty, which also returned last night, deliver a bigger rating? It’s not likely, but it is possible. EW’s Idol recap here, Duck Dynasty recap here. Update: Duck Dynasty ratings are in.

Here’s Idol‘s full-season averages over the years (remember, the first season aired during the summer):

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