This is the time of the television year where “American Idol” producers actually have to earn their money.
For most of the season, the show has easy storylines to draw viewer interest. The early weeks are the auditions and the selection of the finalists; the later weeks are the top contenders competing for first place.
This week? Haley Scarnato got sent packing, becoming the fifth of the original 12 finalists eliminated. But it could have just as easily been Phil Stacey. He’s poised to earn his own star on the “Idol” stage, considering how often he’s been one of the bottom three.
It also could have been Chris Richardson, or (sorry teen “Idol” fans) Sanjaya Malakar. Neither was terrible this week, but neither was awe-inspiring either.
None of the four are particularly memorable, and while the favorites are starting to think about their debut album titles and what they’ll wear to the season finale, the others are poised to be picked off one by one as the show moves closer to the homestretch. By July, only the most dedicated “Idol” fans will remember if Stacey wound up outlasting Richardson or vice-versa, though everyone will remember who won it all.
Ryan Seacrest’s weekly pining for votes aside, there’s less reason for fans of the favorites to watch these April episodes. This part of the show isn’t about who will win it all, it’s who will finish in fifth instead of ninth. That means that producers can be expected to trot out as many big-name guest stars as possible, with the lure of the biggest audience in television as bait to anyone with an album or tour tickets to sell.
That’s augmented by live performances, which on Wednesday included an Akon encore — with two appearances in three weeks, he’s one away from officially being Ryan Seacrest’s co-host. This season also brings a massive star-studded charity drive in a couple of weeks, not coincidently timed to bring an added boost to the already high ratings heading into May.
All the razzle-dazzle may be overkill (how many viewers tuned in just to watch J.Lo sing this week?), but it helps keep the numbers up at a time where the contestants themselves can seem a lot less interesting.
Contenders are predictable Scarnato’s ouster is surprising, in the sense that it means that there are more men than women among the final seven even though the women were generally considered to be stronger this season. But she’s always been more flash than talent, a very good singer compared to most, but not nearly as good as any of the other women who made the final 12.
She picked fun songs and used a little sex appeal to make herself stand out, and that helped her outlast a lot of talented singers. Was she better than Sabrina Sloan or Stephanie Edwards vocally? No, but she’s going on the summer “Idol” tour and they’re not, so she has to be pleased that she lasted as long as she did. She was a good performer and easy to cheer for, but in the end she wasn’t ever a serious candidate to win.
There aren’t ever very many of those, and by this point in a year a rough pecking order has already been established. Only four singers are true contenders. Melinda Doolittle is the odds-on favorite, with LaKisha Jones, Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis waiting in the wings should she falter. One of those four will undoubtedly go home early, since that happens every year, but it would be a shock if anyone else won the title.
That doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high for the singers, since each week on the show brings a greater chance of a record deal. Eight of last season’s final 12 have albums on store shelves or in production, with the fourth-place finisher doing the best of anyone. The longer everyone sticks around, the better their chances of making an album that will get the promotion and support it needs, instead of a courtesy release designed mainly to leverage the “Idol” fanbase for a quick buck.
But for fans of Doolittle, for example, these weeks are just stepping stones. Their favorite is in no apparent danger, she hasn’t been threatened with a space in the bottom three yet, and why should they care whether Chris Richardson sticks around or not? Watching every week isn’t as compelling a motive for her fans, since it would be a shock if she got sent home.
Of course, Chris Daughtry came in fourth last year, and season three winner Fantasia Barrino was in the bottom three in midseason. Favorites do falter, and voter complacency is the reason. But the producers are lining up enough bells and whistles to ensure that people keep on watching and calling in their votes, which will help keep the serious contenders on top of the charts.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.