At Finale Time, 'Idol' Strains to Hit a High Note
Does the future of the Fox network's ratings juggernaut hang on tonight's performances of a hyperactive fashion victim and a perky teenage girl with a deep, abiding love of the word "amazing"?
Fox's "American Idol" finalists Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks will perform three songs apiece; each is required to take a whack at the traditional treacly life-affirming ballad written especially for the finale and which will be the first single cut by whichever of the two lucky Idolettes comes out on top.
Tomorrow night, in a two-hour orgy of product placement and hyperventilation, the singer who snared the most votes from viewers will be crowned the sixth "American Idol," ending a season that opened with a whopping 38.1 million viewers -- the franchise's biggest audience ever -- but that seemed to lose its way, and its ratings momentum, mid-cycle.
For Fox execs and competitors, the real drama will begin the morning after, when the Nielsen numbers come in. If the finale stats are down from last season, it will signal the start of navel-gazing at all the networks as to whether this year's uninspiring cast of competitors is to blame or, as the other networks hope, it's symptomatic of the show's decline.
For three consecutive seasons (including this one), "American Idol" has single-handedly dragged Fox from the ratings cellar -- to which it falls every fourth quarter -- to No. 1 among the four major broadcast networks with viewers ages 18-49, who are the currency of the broadcast television business (because advertisers pay a premium to reach them).
From January through May, for 19 weeks each TV season, "Idol" dwarfs its time-slot competition on Tuesday's performance night and again the next night with the voting results show.
Every January, Fox suits manage expectations, telling the press they think the coming year might be the one in which "Idol" doesn't match the previous season's performance. And the morning of the third Wednesday each January -- the morning after "Idol" debuts -- Fox execs are as surprised as the rest of the industry that "Idol" has come back stronger than ever.
This season looked to be more of the same when the season debut clocked "Idol's" record audience. But in mid-March the ratings dipped. Tuesday's performance show is down slightly compared with last season; Wednesday's results show is up, minimally -- which could be attributed to Fox's decision to expand that 9 p.m. broadcast from a half-hour to one hour. (The number of homes using television is noticeably higher from 9:30 to 10 p.m. than it is from 9 to 9:30 p.m.)
But even staunch fans acknowledge that this season, "Idol" is off. They point to the uninspiring crop of jaded Idolettes, whose stated goal in interviews was not to win the competition but to make it to the top 10, securing a place in the summer's "American Idol" tour.
As if to illustrate that point, early in this year's competition, third-edition evictee Jennifer Hudson won an Academy Award for her performance in "Dreamgirls," while the career of that edition's winner, Fantasia Barrino, has sputtered. "Idol" judge Simon Cowell, who dismissed Hudson during her time on the competition, lost a spitting match with her that started when, during her Oscar campaign, she referred to her time on the singing competition as just one "steppingstone" in her career. Cowell snapped that she never would have even been cast in the flick had she not appeared on "Idol," to which she responded that she also would not have landed the role had she been a hit with her previous job at Burger King and did Cowell think she should have thanked the fast-food chain, as well.
About that time, Chris Daughtry, last season's third runner-up, released an album that outsold "Idol" winner Taylor Hicks's by a margin of 3 to 1, again demonstrating that winning "Idol" is not only not everything, it's sometimes not as good as losing.
Critics of this season also point to the eczema of product placement that broke out this year. Wednesday's results show got so bloated with Ford Music Videos, footage of Idolettes going to sneak peeks of new flicks about to open nationwide and pop singers pitching their new CDs or upcoming tours that even cheerleader/show host Ryan Seacrest began snipping about it during the broadcast. One week, when the results show was still a half-hour, the Idolettes got only five minutes of that airtime, while more than 20 minutes was devoted to pitching this and that.