“American Idol,” the hit talent show that harnesses the dreams of every wannabe singer with the drama of soap opera, reaches its climax this week after its fifth and most successful season.
What started as a fun summer singing show in 2002 has turned into America’s most-watched television show and a boon for the struggling recording industry with sales of more than 33 million records for “American Idol” past finalists and runners-up.
On Tuesday, millions of viewers will cast their votes by telephone or text message for either Taylor Hicks, the 29-year-old Alabama soul singer who has made gray hair cool, or Katharine McPhee, 22, the Los Angeles amateur musical theater star with lustrous locks and one of the best voices in the series.
After five months of TV shows and almost a year since tens of thousands of singers auditioned in cities across the nation, America’s latest idol will be crowned Wednesday in a two-hour finale in Hollywood.
Hicks, once dismissed by acerbic British judge Simon Cowell as having the wrong image, is the favorite among online betting sites to win the coveted recording contract and virtual guarantee of a Top 10 single and album.
The 2006 series has taken “Idol” fever to new heights and its ingenious format, which allows viewers to become acquainted with and choose the new star in the making, shows no signs of running out of steam.
“It is the only show on prime-time network TV that is appropriate for all demographic groups,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television. ”Second-graders (7-year-olds) talk about it at school the next day and grandmothers are calling in and voting sometimes 100 times.”
The Fox TV show has dominated the ratings since January with close to 30 million viewers twice a week. Advertising rates for the finale are running at $1.3 million for 30-second commercials. Only commercial spots on the annual Oscar telecast and the Super Bowl cost more.
Once regarded by music industry stalwarts as a cheesy talent show, the 2006 version of “Idol” showcased icons like Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and Queen, while Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Mary J. Blige gave permission for contestants to perform some of their biggest hits.
Even for those with little interest in popular music, the show with its bickering judges, tears and weekly eliminations, has the drama of soap opera.
“Guaranteed every week, a main character in this show is killed off,” Thompson said. “And since the producers don’t have control over who it is, it really is a surprise.”
According to an opinion poll conducted by the Pursuant public-opinion firm in May, three-quarters of “American Idol” voters were women and 35 percent of respondents believed their votes counted as much or more than voting in a U.S. presidential election.
The three “Idol” judges — Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson — all have signed on for at least three more seasons, meaning the show is nowhere near its swan song.
“The fact that ‘Idol’ is on year five and is getting the best ratings ever is an indication that we can expect this to go at least as long as ‘Survivor,’ which is on 12 and is still in the Top 20,” Thompson said.