TV viewers couldn't wait for their "American Idol" (search) fix, turning out 33.5 million strong for its season debut.

No other show this season has attracted so large an audience, and it represented the third-highest ratings night of entertainment programming in the FOX network's history, Nielsen Media Research said Wednesday. The 33.5 million was a preliminary estimate.

"I'm as awe-struck as anybody," FOX entertainment President Gail Berman said. "We thought we would do well, but nothing like this."

Berman and the show's producers were busy earlier this week trying to dampen expectations, saying they anticipated the talent contest to lose some of its popularity in its fourth season.

Last year's season debut was seen by 29 million people, Nielsen said. The season opener even eclipsed last May's finale: 31.4 million people saw Fantasia Barrino (search) crowned the third champion.

The two-hour debut Tuesday night featured auditions in Washington, D.C., with the heart-warming story of Regina, who sold her wedding ring for a chance to get on the show and was rewarded with a trip to Hollywood.

"In the end, this may sound a little corny, it's the people's program," Berman said. "People just love this show. They feel a part of it, because they're the folks who make the choice who wins."

Anticipation may also play a part in its appeal, she said. FOX has resisted the obvious temptation to hold more than one contest a year. That's a costly decision because this season FOX has sunk to a distant fourth in the prime-time ratings among the young audience it craves.

"It's always been hard," Berman said. "It would have been great to have it on in November. Perhaps I wouldn't have read so many nasty stories about myself."

Even one of FOX's rivals offered his admiration on Wednesday.

"It was pretty impressive," said CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves. "I think Gail undersold it very well. Very smart. I'm sure there's happiness over on Pico Boulevard (FOX headquarters) today."