Fox‘s reality chief Mike Darnell, well known for his premiere anxiety, slept only an hour last night, nervously awaiting the ratings for the Season 12 debut of American Idol  with new judges Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban. When they came in this morning, Idol posted a 6.0/16 among Adults 18-49 and 17.9 million viewers, down 19% from last year’s opener but still higher-rated in the demo than ABC, NBC and CBS combined. “I’m relieved this morning,” Darnell said. “We knew the show would be down but god bless it did a very good number; it was much bigger than The Voice’s premiere.” He attributed the decline, despite the infusion of new judges, to having two singing competition series both in the fall (The Voice, X Factor) and the spring (The Voice, American Idol), in addition to America’s Got Talent in the summer. As a result, “they are all eroding,” Darnell said.

He is encouraged by early reaction and optimistic about Idol’s ratings performance this season. “There is so much talk and buzz about the new judging panel that I’m bullish that we will cut the (ratings) deficit,” Darnell said. He teased the much talked-about feud storyline between diva judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, which he said starts at the Chicago auditions and culminates in Charlotte. He also touted the talent, highlighting a heavily stuttering contestant on tonight’s episode who Darnell believes will have a “Susan Boyle moment and will go viral,” a reference to the unassuming Britain’s Got Talent contestant who became a global Internet star overnight. “We have several really good contestants, and the show is more dynamic with the judges; it feels very refreshed,” Darnell said, teasing a format change that he believes would boost the live shows. But most of all, he bets on new judges, especially Mariah and Nicki, to bring in viewers in the elimination rounds. “I can’t edit the live shows,” he said.”Whatever passion is on that panel will come out.”