07:13 PM PT, May 21 2008
When David Cook was announced as the winner of American Idol Wednesday night at the Nokia theater, it 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 96 million votes, to 44% for 17 year old prodigy David Archuleta, who sings in the pop balladeer style that has dominated Idol" to date. For much of the season, Archuleta seemed almost destined to take the crown, and the judges Tuesday night had announced him as the victor. A native of Blue Springs, Missouri, the low-key and good-natured Cook was overlooked in the early stages of the competition.
At one point, Cook was told by judge Simon Cowell that he was without charisma. Yet Cook surged with a string of rock reimaginations of pop standards such as Billie Jean" that drew massive ovations from audiences at the tapings.
Cook became the standard bearer for a broad-based popular culture in America today. With network television and the music industry both up against a fractured audience and new forms of media, Idol in all its manifestations remains the only show able to consistently deliver vast numbers of viewers.
It's managed to achieve this success with a G-rated strategy that reaches across cultural divides of all types - ethnic, economic, generational, even musical.
However, after a season in which the show came under fire for various offstage controversies and suffered a mid-season sag in its ratings, television's titan stands at a crossroads. It remains to be seen whether this year's ratings dip is a one year phenomenon or the first step on the inevitable downward spiral all successful shows must 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.
Season seven also saw Idol" seemingly struggle at times to control its own storyline. With legions of reporters from the entertainment press, not to mention the Internet, covering every on screen and off utterance of the judges, producers, contestants and their families, American Idol has been subjected to the sharp news lens normally reserved for Presidential candidates or jail-bound starlets.
In past years the show has been 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 however, with the internet-driven media ever more unleashed, the show has had to grapple with sensitive storylines from rumors of a stage dad out of control to eyebrows raised by judge Paula Abdul's seemingly off-kilter performance.
Yet Season seven also showcased the show's continuing strengths. Its young contestants reflected the new, multi-ethnic face of America: Three of the four finalists -- Jason Castro, Syesha Mercado and David Archuleta -- had at least partly Latino origins, yet the huge differences in their styles (laidback hippie crooning for Castro, cerebral jazz for Mercado and soulful ballads for Archuleta) also revealed the great diversity within this demographic.
Ratings wise, the season seems in the finale to have rebounded from its mid-season dip. The show 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 number two rated program, trailing only the Superbowl -- the ratings subsequently tumbled, falling as low as 21.8 million for one show - the lowest figure in three years.
Still, that's a number most TV shows would kill for. And the bigger audiences returned for what was billed as the strongest finals match- up in years.
In a time when ever edgier reality television shows dominate the network airwaves, American Idol almost seems today like a pristine throwback to a gentler time. While other competition shows are routinely driven by the spectacle of contestants who are at each others' throats- often quite literally - with hair pulling and name calling being the norm, the two Idol finalists took the stage Tuesday gushing with good will for each other. Cook even declared that the competition is over. It's all about having fun now."
The atmosphere of camaraderie amidst the weekly deathblows is certainly an intentional part of the Idol universe, with a crew that seems much more like a happily family relishing their 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 of pure talent?
While 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, who drew viewers enjoying the spectacle of his weekly public belly flops.
Nonetheless, with an end of the year ratings rebound and a handful of talents - including the two finalists - with seemingly very strong commercial potential, Idol obituaries may soon look extremely premature.