So much for those whispered industry thoughts that the third season of FOX's smash-hit American Idol series might not be quite as successful as last season's edition. Wishful thinking appears to have been a more accurate description.

According to preliminary estimates from Nielsen Media Research, American Idol's third season premiere steamrolled the rest of its television competition, drawing more than double the number of viewers of its next closest competitor (NBC's Fear Factor) and becoming the biggest debut of any series on any network this season.

Drawing 29 million viewers and a 12.8 rating/31 share in the Adults 18-49 demographic, the Idol 3 premiere overwhelmed the competition in all demos and boosted the network's premiere of My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance to ratings highs not seen in the Monday 9 PM time slot since January 2003's original Joe Millionaire series.

By comparison, NBC's special two-hour Fear Factor telecast (featuring the second and third hours of the seven-hour Fear Factor couples competition) delivered a 5.6/13 in Adults 18-49 and attracted 12.9 million viewers overall.

The ratings for Idol 3's premiere, which was originally planned as a two-hour Tuesday event but later broken into two one-hour segments on Monday and Tuesday due to President Bush's State Of The Union Address, were even bigger than those of the premiere the incredibly successful second American Idol edition.

"The idea that this show has opened bigger than its premiere last year is stunning to us," Fox entertainment president Gail Berman told the Hollywood Reporter. "We had good (anecdotal) evidence that there was just so much interest in this program, but obviously we could have never predicted this response."

Prior to American Idol 3's season premiere, CBS' September 23 CSI season premiere had stood as the season's most watched debut of the season with just under 27 million viewers while NBC's September 25 Friends debut had held the Adults 18-to-49 record with an 11.8 rating.