'American Idol' Is Dead! Long Live 'American Idol'!

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Were "American Idol" returning for its seventh edition tonight without a Hollywood writers' strike, TV critics would be clapping their little hands in glee over early signs the Fox ratings giant may be at the start of a slow slide to obscurity that befalls all reality-TV programming.

They'd prattle on happily about record labels dropping once-hot "Idol" commodities like hottie runner-up Kat McPhee and past winners Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard.

They'd argue that no matter how much her record label insists 425,000 is the new 1.3 million, sales of '07 "Idol" winner Jordin Sparks's debut album have not been great. It's the puniest debut album launch ever for an "Idol" winner, eclipsing even that of Taylor "Never Should've Won" Hicks. (In fairness, "Idol" non-winner Chris Daughtry's band, Daughtry, had the fifth-best-selling album of 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan.)

Some TV critics, who've been sorely tried by the success of "Idol," may even stoop to mention that the 2007 "American Idols Live!" concert tour filled only 69 percent of available seats, compared with the previous tour's 96 percent.

And last season's "Idol" averaged slightly fewer viewers than the previous season -- 30.4 million viewers compared with 30.7 million. The finale, in which Sparks was named winner, clocked about 31 million viewers, compared with the previous season's wrap-up crowd of nearly 37 million.

But along came the Hollywood writers, rendering all these points moot.

In answer to the burning question we know you want to ask: While other ratings magnets like "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI" have lost their writers in the strike, "Idol" still has its writers -- they're just not members of the striking Writers Guild of America. As in past years, "Idol" judge Paula Abdul will have all the non-WGA writers she requires to provide her with enough direct objects to finish most of her sentences.

And, with the scripted ratings magnets out of commission for the time being, advertisers are willing to shell out even more money for time on "Idol" -- reportedly upward of $1 million per 30-second spot.

With other networks running short of original product, "Idol" is actually less vulnerable this season than, say, last.

"In a normal year, there might be a little bit of an illusion the show needs fixing, and maybe somebody might have gone and put 'American Gladiators' [on against 'Idol']. Now, if they've got something, they're going to want to keep it away from 'Idol,' " said one insider who did not want to be identified because Fox for years has had an official no-gloat policy in re "Idol."

That said, we hear "Idol" producers have taken steps to shore up the show. With this edition, for example, the early episodes will include more footage of the good singers and less of the lousy auditioners. So, unlike last season, the contestants who get through won't be total strangers to the viewers, who might then have some actual connection to the competitors going in.

Additionally, this year "Idol" head judge Simon "She's Not Commercial" Cowell took more input from the show's other producers in re which Idolettes made it through and which did not, the insider said.

Ironically, Cowell says this year is one of its best.

"I think personally it's one of the strongest years we've had in a long, long time," he told TV critics in one of the many news conference calls that's passing for Winter TV Press Tour 2008 -- one of the early victims of the Writers Guild strike. "It is younger. I think the talent is more current."

By "more current" he means "not a talented stage-school singer."

By "a talented stage-school singer," he means Diana DeGarmo.

"Diana DeGarmo . . . for me is a talented stage-school singer, a nice person, very good voice, but just didn't seem current to me or even relevant to the music business," Cowell explained. "I was praying this year we just wouldn't get a load of stage-school wannabes, that we'd find someone a lot more interesting, and I genuinely believe that we found that this year."

By "younger" he means "not as old." Which is surprising, given that the producers upped the age cap for contestants a while ago and virtually everyone involved with the show and at the network insisted that had resulted in more talented contestants.

Mercifully, "younger" also means far fewer contestants who have tried six times to make it through, we hear.

"This is a much better season than last year," Cowell promised the TV critics.

"We always say on this show we can't guarantee that we will find a superstar. We'll do our best, but we're at the mercy of who turns up for the auditions," he said.

And, as we've learned over the years, when they get the right mix of competitors on "American Idol," they have a great year. If they don't -- they have a great year.

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