The return of Fox's "American Idol" struck a sweet note with viewers, drawing its best-ever season premiere ratings.

The first episode of the talent contest's fifth season was watched Tuesday by an audience of 35.5 million, a 6 percent increase over last year's debut, according to preliminary Nielsen Media Research figures.

A total of 33.6 million viewers tuned in last year. The final rating for the new season's two-hour opener were expected to vary slightly, if at all, from the preliminary figure, according to a Fox TV spokesman.

It was the most-watched entertainment program of the TV season so far, Fox said.

"To say we are surprised and pleased by last night's numbers would be a major understatement," Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori said in a statement Wednesday.

Ken Warwick, one of the series' executive producers, said most TV shows have a "sell-by date. There comes a time when people get fed up with them."

He attributed the continuing success of "American Idol" to several factors, including the quality of the production and its ability to attract younger and older viewers. Then there are the contestants.

"Every time you see it (the show), just when you think nobody crazier or better or worse can walk through the door, there is someone who's crazier or better or worse," Warwick told The Associated Press. "That keeps it interesting."

As usual, "American Idol" began with host Ryan Seacrest introducing the auditions -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- and equivalent reactions from judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. Chicago was the site of the first tryouts, while Wednesday's show was to feature auditions in Denver.

After the judges voted to send one plump singer on to compete in Hollywood, the acerbic Cowell inquired whether the stage was larger this year. He unsettled another by calling her tan and taste into question, and quickly silenced a man dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

Abdul, looking mildly uncomfortable, was serenaded by some male singers apparently trying to woo her vote.

Last year, Abdul and the show faced allegations from former contestant Corey Clark that he had an affair with her during the competition in 2003. After an investigation, the network concluded the claims couldn't be substantiated.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Liguori said the network considered the case closed and that there was no proof the sanctity of the competition was violated.

Asked if viewer interest might have been piqued by the controversy, Warwick attributed the ratings to "a little bit of everything, to be absolutely honest."

Last year's contest ended up with the title and a record contract going to Carrie Underwood, whose debut album was released in November and reached No. 1 on Billboard's country album chart.

The first "Idol" winner, Kelly Clarkson, has become a star in the past year, with huge sales for her hit "Since U Been Gone." Her refusal to allow her songs to be used by new "Idol" contestants was criticized by Cowell, who said she was snubbing the show and its audience.

Maybe this year's field won't need her help: Warwick said the aspiring idols are better than ever.