- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2008

LOS ANGELES (AP) - This season of “American Idol” had talented singers, a doe-eyed teenage contestant for the prepubescent crowd, visits from pop royalty, stinging comments from Simon Cowell and jaw-droppers from Paula Abdul.

So why have some fans and observers found it a dull slog as the show builds to tonight’s final showdown between David Archuleta and David Cook? (The winner will be crowned tomorrow night after millions of viewer votes are cast via phone and text messages.)

The reason is that contestants who were good but not memorable made for mediocre television, watchers say. Where were the drama, the unpredictability, the oddball personalities?

In short, where was the fun?

Such criticism is ironic given the heat “Idol” took last year when Sanjaya Malakar, more a hair model than a singer, held the spotlight. Or the reaction when dancin’ man Taylor Hicks won the title in 2006, trading as much on charm as skill.

Producers of the Fox show made an effort this year to go for vocal gold over glitz, and this is the thanks they get — along with remaining the No. 1 show, albeit with slimmer ratings.

“The only thing that kept the entire thing from being excruciatingly boring was [apparent front-runner] Michael Johns being voted off and the shiver it seemed to send through everyone,” observed regular “Idol” viewer Mike Anderson of Yakima, Wash.

“Because the talent level was so high, nothing anyone did was surprising,” Mr. Anderson says.

Maybe not quite high enough: No one, not even teen fave Mr. Archuleta or rocker Mr. Cook, came close to equaling what Mr. Anderson calls LaKisha Jones’ “blowout performance” of “And I’m Telling You” last season. Fantasia Barrino’s stunning rendition of “Summertime” in season three also remains a singular achievement.

Dave Della Terza has long relished mocking “American Idol” on his Web site, votefortheworst.com, but counts himself among this season’s disappointed viewers.

“In past years, people would ask, ‘Do you hate “American Idol?” ’ I’d say it’s fun to make fun of, it’s so bad,” he said. “But this year, honestly, I’m so sick of the show. … It’s almost a chore to watch at this point.”

He’s hearing the same thing from visitors to his site and seeing it in the numbers, with traffic down about 50 percent.

A major complaint cited by Mr. Della Terza: The contestants have remained cyphers. In other words, Jason Castro’s dreadlocks showed more character than any contestant.

“What do you really know about David Cook? All you really know about David Archuleta is his dad is annoying,” Mr. Della Terza says, referring to reports of backstage meddling.

“American Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe isn’t buying the criticism. He says the talent this year has been “phenomenal” and he expects the David versus David finale will be the “humdinger” judge Mr. Cowell colorfully predicted last week.

The audience for “American Idol” has dropped by about 8 percent from the nearly 31 million viewers who watched last year. However, there has been a general erosion in TV viewership, partly blamed on the writers strike, with the big four networks drawing about 9 percent fewer viewers in April and May so far than during the comparable period last year. “Idol” has withstood the downturn better than many other hit series, such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” down about 20 percent.

Mr. Lythgoe also dismissed the contention that viewers weren’t allowed to get up close and personal with contestants. Take runner-up Syesha Mercado: “We know that her father had drug and alcohol issues. We know what she was experiencing. After that, there are personal [boundaries],” he says.

Mr. Lythgoe maintains that even before Sanjaya Malakar became a topic of discussion, he and fellow producers realized the show was “losing focus” and needed to give precedence to the contest and follow-ups on past finalists such as Miss Barrino and Clay Aiken.

“It’s not about the judges, the mentors, anybody with a record coming out,” he says.

For a show that makes an art of product placement, however, an old artist with a new CD to promote still represents a viable commodity. Neil Diamond was among this year’s fusty but famous visitors, graciously offering advice to contestants (some of whom proceeded to mangle his work anyway).

Bruce Flohr, a former record company executive now with Red Light Management, is an “Idol” admirer but says the show has to do a better job of weeding out lesser singers who make it too easy to guess who will make it through to the end.

“Part of the problem is people are starting to use the show as a vehicle to stardom whether they truly want to sing or not,” he says.

To those who say the song selections are too old, producer Mr. Lythgoe responds that finding a young artist with an impressive enough body of work to be covered by a dozen contestants is no easy task. Besides challenging the young singers — which he says makes for compelling TV — the classics remain worthy, he adds.

“You can’t beat Stevie Wonder. Look at that catalog,” Mr. Lythgoe says. “And history teaches us so much.”

The show can’t ignore one particularly ominous ratings sign, although Mr. Lythgoe contends it’s cyclical and reversible: The median age of an “American Idol” viewer, once in the mid-30s, is up to 42 as viewership by teenagers and women age 18 to 34 has dropped.

One beneficiary of the “Idol” machine, Mr. Hicks, remains upbeat about it. He’s headed to Broadway to join the cast of “Grease” next month.

“The idea and the dream is still alive in that show,” Mr. Hicks says. “American Idol” has the ability to “cultivate a talent to put them on their way to becoming a great entertainer and a great performer, a musician, actor, whatever.”

Bob Lefsetz isn’t buying it. The music industry analyst says flatly that “the bloom is off the rose” after so many years.

“Even if the new Aretha Franklin came on,” he says, “people would say, ‘Seen it. I’m going to watch something on YouTube.’ ”

Associated Press writer Erin Carlson contributed to this report.

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