The Fox network is putting a brave face on the shrinking appeal of "American Idol."
Its 12th-season premiere Wednesday posted "an expected 19 percent decline versus least season" in the 18-to-49 demographic, the network said on Thursday. But the network hastened to add that Fox still had the highest-rated night of entertainment programming of any network thus far this season, and outperformed its three-network competition combined by 11 percent.
"Idol" drew 17.9 million total viewers on Wednesday. Last year's premiere was seen by 21.9 million total viewers.
During the broadcast, the judges voiced optimism of their own.
"I feel like we jell well in a weird, crazy way," said Nicki Minaj, speaking of the judges' panel near the episode's conclusion.
At least, there was no hair-pulling between Minaj and Mariah Carey, even as some viewers may have been reduced to it.
The pop divas exchanged insults worthy of middle schoolers, fellow freshman judge Keith Urban looked trapped between them, and there was a whiff of make-believe Wednesday about the show's touted feud.
"We can have accessories. I didn't know that was allowed. That's all I'm gonna say," Carey commented archly about Minaj's flashy, drum major-style hat.
The rapper took offense.
"Why'd you have to reference my hat?" Minaj said, with Carey then accusing Minaj of rudeness to her during an earlier elevator meeting.
Mercifully, a contestant arrived to break up the bickering and remind viewers that we tuned in to a talent show, not an episode of "Real Housewives of American Idol."
When the action resumed, Minaj demonstrated a magnificent talent for eye-rolling and upped the ante with a muttered insult.
"If she called me something that begins with a 'b' and ends with an 'itch,' I rebuke it," Carey declared.
Whether the clash is real, Minaj's scrappiness came off as far more entertaining than Carey's demure, even queenly, manner. Carey is getting a truly royal paycheck: $18 million, to Minaj's $12 million.
The award for least self-absorbed judge goes to genial country singer Urban.
The two-hour episode opened by showcasing last year's winner, Phillip Phillips, and those alumni with established careers, including Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson.
Then host Ryan Seacrest brought "American Idol" back down to Earth and to its new judges.
"Our legacy continues as a new era begins," he said, reciting the panelists' resumes, including record sales, Grammys won and, in Carey's case, vocal range (five octaves, "the definition of diva," Seacrest said).
Cue the parade of good, bad and touching performances and biographies, with contestants facing serious challenges once again an "Idol" hallmark.
The judges, including veteran Randy Jackson, hardened their hearts and rejected a young man who had lost a leg to cancer but melted for a teenage girl whose family fosters children with medical concerns and another singer with partial hearing loss.
Forty-one people survived the New York auditions to sing another day in the Hollywood rounds, with the action moving to Chicago on Thursday's episode.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.