- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Several years into their run, two titans of television reality talent competition Fox’s “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” on rival network ABC were headed in different directions as they approached the final episodes of their seasons.

“Idol,” the nation’s perennial No. 1 show, suddenly appears vulnerable, struggling to hold on to its vast audience, while the older-skewing “Dancing,” which crowned 17-year-old gymnast Shawn Johnson and her partner Mark Ballas the winning team, is maintaining altitude.

“Idol” began its final vocal smackdown Tuesday night the battle royale between Kris Allen and apparent judges’ favorite Adam Lambert, who each performed a three-song set that included “Mad World” from the cult film “Donnie Darko,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and “No Boundaries,” a song co-written by new “Idol” judge, Kara DioGuardi. Results will be announced during Wednesday’s star-studded show.

As millions tuned in for both programs Tuesday night, “Idol,” the older of the two reality franchises, may have had more at stake.

An estimated 30.1 million people watched the singing competition’s Jan. 13 season debut, which left Fox’s entertainment chief “relieved but not satisfied,” according to published reports.

Still, that figure represented a 10 percent drop from the 33.4 million who watched the 2008 debut and that number was lower than the 37.4 million who tuned in for the show’s 2007 debut, the series’ high point for opening nights.

Despite the downward trend, “Idol” remains a ratings powerhouse. “Idol” held the top two slots in the most recent Nielsen ratings for the week of May 11-17, with 24.6 million tuning in for its May 13 results show and 22.7 million watching May 12 when a field of contenders was pared down to two finalists, setting up Tuesday’s showdown.

“Dancing” also placed two shows in the Nielsen Top 10 in the same week, ranking third with 18.5 million viewers May 11 and finishing eighth with its May 12 results show with 14.1 million.

Even more are expected to tune in for the “Idol” results show Wednesday proving that “Idol,” despite falling ratings, remains a force, said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television studies at Syracuse University in New York and director of its Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

“I think the No. 1 thing is that ‘Idol’ is beginning to get a little repetitious. In the first season, there was that element of surprise, but now ‘Idol’ is about as formulaic as you can get,” Mr. Thompson said. “You could actually speak along with [show host] Ryan Seacrest, just like the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ because he says the same thing over and over. The same thing [holds true] for the judges. It’s like about 12 variations of the same limited responses. Simon [Cowell] was great in the first season because we’d never seen anyone like him on TV before, someone who was just mean and insulting. And we loved it! Now, it’s like we know what’s coming.”

Mr. Thompson also cited the inevitable erosion of popularity that hit shows eventually face. “So many top shows start out with a bang, then they go through a stage where this declines,” he said. “‘Survivor’ is a perfect example. When it first started in 2000, that’s all you heard. Now nobody is talking about ‘Survivor’ anymore, but it’s still a hit show. I think ‘Idol’ is heading in that direction. Their moment at the center of the popular culture solar system is probably drawing to a close. It hasn’t yet, but even when it does, that show will probably wind up in Nielsen’s Top 20. It may not be there as a number-one show, but it will still be there.”

Meanwhile, the proliferation of similar televised talent competitions such as “Dancing,” Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance?” and NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” have also claimed part of the reality spotlight.

But their ceilings aren’t as high as “Idol,” Mr. Thompson said. “‘America’s Got Talent’ is a summer show and, besides, after winning a dancing show, where do you go from there?” he asks. “Dance in our culture just doesn’t have the same superstar status or potential that singing does.”

Sheila Francis, spokeswoman for the District’s 20,000-plus Verizon Center, where both “Idol” and “Dancing” showcase their top performers on annual tours, said the first few shows for “Idol” were sellouts a feat that “Dancing” has not yet accomplished despite its large crowds and brisk ticket sales. This year, the “Idol” tour is scheduled for Aug. 4, and “Dancing” tour dates have yet to be set, she said.

Mr. Thompson observed that unlike “Idol,” “Dancing” contestants already are celebrities “even if they’re B-list stars or someone you’ve barely heard of; while ‘Idol’ actually lets you see a star in the making.”

It’s too soon to hold the last rites for “Idol,” Mr. Thompson said. And even when its end does come, it may just live on and on and on, in one form or another.

“‘Idol,’ at seven years, is probably just at its midway point in terms of endurance,” he said. “And its stars are just starting out. If nothing more [first ‘Idol’ winner], Kelly Clarkson’s ‘A Moment Like This’ already has a legacy. It will be played at weddings forever.”

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