By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated January 21, 2004 05:34 PM

“American Idol” has lost none of its luster or bluster: The third edition of FOX talent contest — or “AI3,” as it’s being called — premiered Monday night to a staggering 28.2 million viewers overall, according to preliminary national ratings from Nielsen Media Research.

It also earned a whopping 12.5 rating in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic craved by advertisers. (Each rating point equals 1.29 million viewers in that group.) Those numbers topped the total for the opening episode last January, which attracted 26.5 million viewers.

Monday’s results made the show the biggest of the night and the biggest debut of any series on any network this season, reports Reuters, noting that this latest episode of “Idol” now ranks as the second-highest-rated non-sports telecast so far this season among 18-to-49-year-olds (behind last week’s episode of “Friends”), while just two episodes of the CBS hit series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” have attracted more total viewers, FOX said.

Now, as for the blustery part of “Idol,” judge Simon Cowell, 44, tells TV’s “Extra” that what struck him most about the season opener was “just how bad everyone was.” Cowell particularly singles out the contestant named Scooter Girl.

“I must admit when I saw that and we were raving about her, I thought, ‘I’m off my rocker because she wasn’t very good.'”

And as for current PEOPLE coverboy, fellow judge Randy Jackson, who lost 100 pounds through gastric bypass surgery, Cowell typically says, “Actually, he looks like someone let some air out. He was so big, and when you let the air out of those bouncy castles, it all kind of goes like that.”