With Davids, 'Idol' still Goliath

Times Staff Writer

When David Cook was announced as the winner of "American Idol" on Wednesday night at the Nokia Theatre, the most dramatic upset in the show's history was just another twist in a season that has tested the still-vibrant franchise.

The 25-year-old became the first performer in the rock music mold to win, amassing 56% of 97.5 million votes, to 44% for 17-year-old prodigy David Archuleta, who sings in the pop balladeer style that had previously dominated "Idol."

Before the verdict was announced, Judge Simon Cowell praised both contestants for being "nice people," underscoring the fact that the Fox hit has achieved its success with a G-rated strategy that reaches across cultural divides -- ethnic, economic, generational, even musical.

With network television and the music industry both up against a fractured audience and new forms of media, Cook and runner-up Archuleta became standard-bearers for today's broad-based popular culture.

"Idol" remains the only show able to consistently deliver vast numbers of viewers, eclipsing even the Oscars.

However, after a season in which the series came under fire for various offstage controversies and suffered a midseason sag in ratings, television's titan stands at a crossroads. It remains to be seen whether this year's dip in popularity is a one-year phenomenon or the first step on the inevitable downward spiral all successful TV shows eventually face.

For the moment, Fox network brass are sufficiently concerned that they have made public statements promising major, though as yet unspecified, changes when the show returns in January.

With broad-based musical hits becoming harder and harder to generate, the "Idol" machine's ability to fulfill its original mission of creating "the next pop star" has also been called into question. Some, such as Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, have gone on to stardom, but several others haven't been able to muster major careers.

The show has always been subjected to the sharp news lens usually reserved for presidential candidates or jail-bound starlets, and Season 7 saw "Idol" seemingly struggle at times to control its story line.

In past years, the show was remarkably successful at framing the terms of the debate, bringing its hiccups onto the screen and showing a willingness to poke fun at itself. This year, with the Internet-driven media ever more rampant, the show has had to grapple with several sensitive story lines. There were reports that Archuleta's father was banned from backstage for interfering with the production, and eyebrows were raised when a seemingly off-kilter Paula Abdul rendered a verdict on a performance that had not yet occurred.

Still, the bigger audiences returned for what was billed as the strongest finals matchup in years.

Archuleta, who was practically weaned on the show, having watched since he was 10, had often seemed invincible, with technically flawless renditions of pop favorites.

But Cook, who at one point was told by Cowell that he was without charisma, surged with a string of rock reimaginings of such hits as "Billie Jean" that drew massive ovations from the audience.

The show seems in the finale to have rebounded from its ratings decline. It premiered to an audience of 33.5 million total viewers, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research, putting it ahead of the Oscars telecast to become the season's No. 2-rated program, trailing only the Super Bowl. But the ratings tumbled, falling as low as 21.8 million for one show, the program's lowest in three years.

Still, that's a number most TV shows would kill for.

Season 7's young contestants also reflected the new, multiethnic face of America: Three of the four finalists -- Jason Castro, Syesha Mercado and Archuleta -- had at least partly Latino origins. Yet the huge differences in their styles (laid-back hippie crooning for Castro, cerebral jazz for Mercado and soulful ballads for Archuleta) also revealed diversity within the demographic.

In a time when ever edgier reality television shows dominate the networks, "American Idol" seems something of a throwback to a gentler time. While other competition shows are driven by the spectacle of contestants at one another's throats -- often quite literally -- the two "Idol" finalists took the stage this week gushing with goodwill for each other. Cook even declared Tuesday that "the competition is over. It's all about having fun now."

The atmosphere of camaraderie amid the weekly death blows is certainly an intentional part of the "Idol" universe, with a crew that seems much more like a happy family relishing its work than the typical TV production staff. It may be this spirit of fun yet gentle competition that has helped "Idol" retain its status as the one show on television that still attracts entire families across the generational divide.

However, as producers look ahead and consider the ratings sag of this year, part of their calculation must be: How much do viewers want fights and freak shows instead of a face-off based purely on their talent?

Though this year's group was considered by many commentators to be the most talented overall in the show's history, the uniformity of talent deprived the show of the train-wreck interest summoned, for example, by last year's contestant Sanjaya Malakar. Viewers enjoyed the spectacle of his weekly belly-flops.

Nonetheless, with an end-of-season ratings rebound and a handful of talents, including the two finalists, who appear to have strong commercial potential, the "Idol" obituaries may soon look premature.


richard.rushfield @latimes.com

Times staff writer Scott Collins contributed to this report.

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