The parade of awful amateurs on "American Idol" attracted viewers in staggering numbers this week as the series continues to grow in popularity.

An estimated 36.9 million people watched the two-hour special on Fox Wednesday night, only slightly down from the 37.3 million who tuned in for Tuesday's two-hour season premiere, according to Nielsen Media Research.

They were the two biggest nights of prime-time entertainment on Fox since it came onto the air nearly two decades ago.

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"We're fortunate it's on our air and we take good care of it and it rewards us with good ratings," said Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president for strategic planning.

The audience for what host Ryan Seacrest dubbed "the weirdest turnout in history" on Wednesday was 17 percent bigger than the corresponding night a year ago, Nielsen said.

To put the numbers into perspective, the most popular show on TV so far this season, ABC's "Desperate Housewives," averages 20.7 million viewers a week — or a little more than half of what "Idol" delivered upon its return.

Wednesday's edition featured hopefuls from Seattle, one of seven cities where auditions were held last summer. And it provided plenty of fodder for cantankerous judge Simon Cowell.

"What the bloody hell was that?" judge Simon Cowell said after enduring a unique version of "Unchained Melody," adding, "It was almost non-human."

To another woman who insisted a drink of water would smooth her delivery, Cowell replied: "You could lie in a bath with your mouth open and you couldn't sing."

The ratings performance of "American Idol" defies traditional television rules, where series in their sixth season would normally see a slip in popularity.

But "American Idol" can legitimately claim to mint new pop stars, like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken and "Golden Globes" winner Jennifer Hudson. Keeping it as a once-a-year event has ratcheted up anticipation, Beckman said. Since the ill-fated "American Juniors" contest after the first season, Fox hasn't tried spinoffs, either.

"In some ways it's become like a sporting event," he said. "There's baseball season, basketball season, football season and `American Idol' season."

As gleeful as `Idol' makes the people at Fox, it depresses their network rivals.

"There's always that hope that the next iteration of `American Idol,' will show some weakness," said Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Paramount Network, "and clearly it hasn't."

Fox's rivals jokingly — it appears — refer to "American Idol" as the death star. NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly said he was ready to declare the television season over on Tuesday, before Fox storms past everyone in the ratings.

Reilly said a network has to "rope-a-dope a little bit" to get through the "American Idol" onslaught. CBS has tended to have the most success, where a show like "NCIS" appeals to a different audience.

"Our shows hang in there OK," said CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl. "The other guys kind of get vaporized."

'American Idol' is broadcast on FOX, which is owned by the parent company of FOXNews.com.

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