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‘Idol’ got its groove back in season seven

Despite the talk about sagging ratings, the seventh season of "American Idol" will go down as one of the best in the show's history, and better than anything "Idol" has come up with since season four.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

"American Idol" is still the No. 1 show on television, but season seven brought out more doubters than the program has seen in a long time. The ratings were down. Young viewers started turning away. Whispers started to suggest that big changes might be in store for next year to recapture some of its lost magic.

But despite all the negativism, the seventh season of "Idol" will go down as one of the best in the show's history, and better than anything "Idol" has come up with since season four. It was more compelling than anything "Idol" has come up with since that Carrie Underwood-Bo Bice final, and produced the buzz and the champion that "Idol" had lacked since.

For the first time in three years, "Idol" has a winner who's more than just a novelty act (Taylor Hicks) or the best of a bad group of finalists (Jordin Sparks). The finale set a record for the total number of votes, and the leadup to the Battle of the Davids rivaled the hype of any "Idol" final ever.

It wasn't always perfect, and there's lots of fine-tuning to be done before January. But ultimately season seven will be seen as one that stopped a two-year run of unimpressive finalists and got the show back on track.

How 'Idol' got its groove backThe best thing about this season is that, for a reality television program, it progressed like a scripted series. There was enough drama to keep viewers guessing, but not enough to deprive the show of a deserving winner.

The David Cook-David Archuleta final provided a ready-made storyline, and because the two were favorites early in the season and never faltered afterwards, the buildup to May was tremendous. That's a big improvement from the letdown of the past two seasons.

Moreover, it's a novelty for the show that its best two singers actually made the final. Season five was defined by Chris Daughtry, who finished fourth, while the sixth season was dominated by Melinda Doolittle until she was surprisingly relegated to third place. As a result, those seasons were defined more by who wasn't in the finale than the pair of singers who were fighting for the title.

While the best two singers made the finale this time around, there was enough unpredictability in earlier weeks to keep viewers on edge. Michael Johns and Carly Smithson went out unexpectedly early. Kristy Lee Cook and Jason Castro hung around longer than expected. Syesha Mercado cheated elimination so many times that it was a little surprising when she finally got sent packing. The result was a season that featured a lot of minor upsets without a major catastrophe and finished with a very satisfying pair of contestants.

Also unlike in previous seasons, the buzz was on the contestants. There was no Sanjaya distraction to worry about. All of the random stories about questionable activities in the contestants' pasts amounted to nothing that couldn't be swept under the rug and forgotten about.

Tough decisions aheadThe big task for the show's top brass over the coming months is to figure out what's causing the decline in viewers. Is it just that the presidential election is stealing attention from a reality TV show?

While that would be a great sign for the intelligence of the public, it doesn't tell the complete story. Two more likely reasons for the declining viewership may be that the show is not reaching people because of the music it chooses to emphasize, or the judges are starting to get too stale for the viewers to retain interest.

"Idol" tried to go with more contemporary guest mentors a year ago, and it didn't work. Too much attention was paid to the guests at the expense of the contestants, and too many of the mentors seemed to be going through the motions. Gwen Stefani couldn't have mailed it in more if she'd stuffed herself in an envelope.

This year, the show went old-school again, as Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, and Andrew Lloyd Webber were among the guest coaches. The contestants might have gotten more out of it, but the audience didn't. It seemed like every week was another series of songs that can only be found on oldies radio stations, which doesn't make sense given the show's mandate to find a pop star for today. Getting that balance right is critical to keeping the audience engaged.

The real difficult decision concerns the judges. Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell can be a comforting presence on television — everyone knows the dynamics and the catchphrases by now, and it's easy to predict what they're going to say. Of course, that also makes it predictable, and during the auditions and again in the drudgery of March and April it seems like they're actors playing themselves and reading from a script. If they're bored by things at this point, why wouldn't the viewers be?

It's high-stakes gamble whatever the show chooses to do. Breaking up the team could re-energize it, or it could disrupt the dynamic enough to make things fall apart. But that's the call that the executives get the big bucks to make.

Sales will tell the tale"Idol" seasons are judged in-season by the ratings and off-season by the album sales. Since the TV ratings were down, it's counting on a strong iTunes performance from the Davids to make up for those numbers.

In that sense, the show got a break that the voters defied the judges' orders and picked Cook instead of Archuleta. Though Archuleta has a lot of talent and the potential to be a star for a long time, Cook is more ready to produce hit singles right now.

The bar he has to reach is comparatively low. If his initial album captures just a fraction of the audience that voted for him on the show, he'll sell a lot more than Hicks or Sparks did in their post-Idol debut.

This isn't the first time the show's had its doubters. A few years ago, the show seemed to be in trouble amid growing audience and critical indifference, and Fox responded by making a few changes. That was right before the show's fourth season, which may go down as the best ever for the show.

It shouldn't take much for Cook to do well enough to be the best champion since Underwood, which will do a lot to erase the memories of the last two champions. While the seventh season will ultimately fall short of that mark, it's at least a sign that it's back on the right track.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.