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Published: Wednesday, 5/27/2009

Don't count 'American Idol' out yet

BY EDWARD WYATT
NEW YORK TIMES

LOS ANGELES - The confetti had not yet stopped falling in the Nokia Theater here last Wednesday night when the conspiracy theories began to emerge: The producers of American Idol wanted Kris Allen to win. The vote was rigged. Fox was determined to have a fresh-faced, heartland-appropriate, eyelinerless Idol as the public face of the most popular series on television.

So too did the requiem begin for American Idol. The ratings were the lowest in the show's history for a finale, the headlines read. The experiment of adding a fourth judge was a failure, critics proclaimed. Simon Cowell may be leaving the show, spelling its doom.

Don't start digging a grave just yet, however. Those who think American Idol is losing its grip on the top of the ratings are probably fooling themselves, at least according to Fox.

"It's ridiculous how big this show is," Mike Darnell, president for alternative programming at Fox Broadcasting, said in an interview last Friday. "It has had just as big an impact as ever this season, maybe bigger in terms of the amount of cultural talk it has generated."

The series certainly seemed to be on the tip of tongues around the country this season, with a field of Top 5 performers that was arguably the show's strongest ever. Adam Lambert, in particular, drew the most attention, dividing viewers while also drawing admiration for the energy he injected into performances.

Allen, meanwhile, played the part of Mine That Bird, the unsung colt who climbed unnoticed from the back of the pack to Kentucky Derby victory.

With even the Idol judges seeming to expect Lambert to win, it did not take long for the hothouse of the blogosphere to generate numerous theories about the forces that had aligned against him.

The show's host, Ryan Seacrest, it was noted, mentioned multiple times during the finale that nearly 100 million votes were cast, but he gave no hint about the margin separating the two finalists. Last year he clearly stated that the winner, David Cook, received 56 percent of the 97.5 million votes cast, a 12 million-vote margin of victory. And earlier this season Seacrest gave details about the vote margin between the bottom two contestants.

Many Web commentators seized on questions about Lambert's sexuality to claim that a homophobic campaign was being waged against him. (Lambert has not stated his sexual orientation.) But that argument ignores Lambert's rise to the final round. Presumably someone intent on eliminating him for reasons not related to his singing could have done so earlier in the season.

The Fox affiliate in Little Rock, Ark., reported last Wednesday that "an extraordinary number of votes" - 38 million in some reports - came from Arkansas, a state with a population of less than 3 million. That detail quickly made its way around the Internet. The station later retracted that news, saying that it was "based on incorrect information provided to one of our reporters."

Seacrest also told the audience last Tuesday that the voting would continue for "at least four hours" after the end of the show, an open-ended deadline that raised as many questions as it answered. Would the lines stay open only until the "right" candidate was ahead?

Darnell said that the results were not manipulated, and that Fox and the producers had no preferences regarding the winner. "There are no conspiracies, and there is no plot," he said. "We're happy to have America tell us who the winner is. And they have always gotten it right."

What Allen had going for him, most likely, is that he was from the South. Consider the eight winners of American Idol and their home states: Kelly Clarkson, Texas; Ruben Studdard, Alabama; Fantasia Barrino, North Carolina; Carrie Underwood, Oklahoma; Taylor Hicks, Alabama; Jordin Sparks, Arizona; David Cook, Missouri, Kris Allen, Arkansas.

It is difficult to tell what part audience demographics played in Allen's victory. Many commentators claimed that texting teenagers favored him, but if that was true, they probably also would have favored David Archuleta over Cook last season.

And the American Idol audience is getting older. In 2004 viewers 6 to 24 made up 24 percent of the Idol audience, according to Nielsen Media Research, while viewers over 55 accounted for 18 percent. By this year those numbers had flipped: the 6-to-24 category measured only 17 percent of the total audience, while the over-55 contingent was 27 percent of the total, according to Nielsen.

Fox noted that although the Nielsen ratings for the finale were the lowest in the show's eight years among 18-to-49-year-olds, the total number of viewers for the finale - 28.8 million - was the same as the third-season finale, when Barrino outdueled Diana DeGarmo.

"You can't compare this year's ratings to anything on television seven years ago," Darnell said, because everything on television is drawing fewer viewers. The spread between Idol and the No. 2-rated show has only widened in recent years.

As for Cowell, he is under contract for next season, as is Randy Jackson, but Paula Abdul and Kara DioGuardi are not. Darnell would not say whether the show would return to three judges or keep four.

"No decision has been made," he said. "We made an enormous amount of changes this year. Now we'll go back and consider which things worked and which ones didn't."

Or, as Seacrest would say: The answer is - after the break.



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