- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

After weeks of hype, it comes down to this: the next “American Idol” — either gray-haired whiskey-voice tenor Taylor Hicks or raven-tressed chanteuse Katharine McPhee — will be decided tonight by the viewer call-in votes cast for last night’s sing-off.

Both gave it their all and performed three songs before a crowd of 3,000, including actors Ben Stiller, Mandy Moore, Christina Applegate and Taye Diggs inside Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre.

Miss McPhee set hearts aflutter with her sultry rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But Mr. Hicks — clad in a purple velvet jacket for his opening number — ruled the night as the audience’s favorite.

Yet no matter who captures the crown, the real winner is the show itself, a force that has saturated pop culture and shows no signs of waning.

“Idol’s” appeal is seemingly boundless, attracting everyone from titans of industry to regular working stiffs. Britain’s Prince William and Prince Harry admit to being fans. Not even former presidents are immune. Bill Clinton and George Bush had no trouble chatting up “Idol” during an appearance last week on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” when the host appealed for a “presidential intervention” to bring back popular contender Chris Daughtry, ousted from the show on May 10.

In Richmond, hometown “Idol” Elliott Yamin, one of this season’s three finalists before getting the boot last Wednesday , was lauded by Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, for “having inspired and entertained millions with his extraordinary singing voice and charisma.”

Beyond the tube, there’s a nationwide “Idol” tour, a concert showcase featuring the show’s 12 finalists, scheduled for a July 28 stop at the Verizon Center. Tickets went on sale Saturday, and the 14,000 available seats “are nearly gone,” said Kristie Shields, director of event marketing at the arena.

And finally, there’s “American Idol Season 5 Encores,” a compilation CD filled with songs performed by the 12 finalists. It arrived in stores yesterday and is expected to generate hefty sales.

Now in its fifth season, “Idol,” seen Tuesdays and Wednesdays, has dominated the Nielsen ratings, holding the No. 1 slot since kicking off its new season in mid-January. An estimated 50 million American viewers — plus millions more in at least 20 markets abroad — are expected to tune in to tonight’s live two-hour finale.

Advertisers are ponying up $1.3 million for a 30-second spot, according to the industry publication Advertising Age. Only commercial spots for the annual Super Bowl and Oscar telecasts cost more, Reuters reports.

All of which begs the question: What’s the reason for “Idol’s” staggering success?

For starters, it has drama and surprise.

“Guaranteed every week, a main character is killed off,” Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told Reuters, referring to “Idol’s” weekly eliminations.

Then, there’s the underdog factor. “We all love a Cinderella story,” says Melissa Marcello, founder of public opinion research firm Pursuant Inc. “We all love the idea of working hard and winning. It’s like watching ourselves.”

More important, perhaps, is what analysts cite as “Idol’s” overall family appeal. “It’s one of the few shows on TV that the whole family can watch — where Mom and Dad don’t have to worry about whether the kids are going to see something they shouldn’t,” Miss Marcello says.

An avowed “Idol” fan, she’s just released the results of what she thinks is the first survey on the show. Among the poll’s discoveries: One in 10 American adults cast votes on “Idol” this season.

“That’s pretty phenomenal considering there’s been a lot of speculation that ‘Idol’ voters are 11- to 17-year-olds who are text-messaging or dialing on their cell phones,” Miss Marcello says.

Other findings:

• 74 percent of “Idol” voters are women (with those 30 and older more likely to vote) from households with two or more people.

• Nearly 35 percent of those interviewed said they think the votes on “American Idol” count as much or more than those cast in the presidential race.

• 58 percent value the opinions of snarky “Idol” judge Simon Cowell as compared with only 7 percent for ‘80s pop-star-turned “Idol” judge Paula Abdul.

In November, Fox announced a deal for five more seasons of the show.

Of course, every show runs its course, and sooner or later even “Idol’s” ratings are bound to slide … aren’t they?

Says Miss Marcello: “People will tire of [the judges] before they will the contestants or even the show.”

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