Despite a stronger pool of contestants this season, "American Idol" is losing steam in both buzz and ratings. The show is averaging about 27 million viewers, about 10 percent fewer than last year. And traffic on the main "American Idol" Web site was down a whopping 41 percent this past March from the same month a year earlier.
Here are three theories on why:
1. Show's just getting old. Time passes, younger viewers move on. The show is seven years old. Reality shows such as "Suvivor" and "America's Next Top Model" started losing viewers after five years. The fact "Idol" grew ratings five consecutive years was unprecedented anyway. The impressive talent this year (with no Sanjaya in sight) probably only stemmed the losses.
2. Songs were too Boomer heavy. Themes such as Neil Diamond and Andrew Lloyd Weber kept the 40-plus crowd happy, but teens and young adults less than thrilled. The contestants were given very few chances to mine current tunes.
3. Some gimmicks foundered. Allowing singers to use instruments helped the likes of Jason Castro and Brooke White land in the top 5, but other efforts to spice up the proceedings failed. A rather contrived Q&A during the always bloated hourlong results show (which is being cut to 30 minutes next season) offered few insights, and the sorority girls recruited to line the front of the stage meant to add energy were often just distracting.
David vs. David
"Idol" oddsmakers had Archuleta the early leader, but Cook has built up a strong case to win it all with more consistent performances that seems to appeal to a broader audience. Still, Archuleta's teen fans might give him the edge with a barrage of text messaging. In either case, expect a close race.
Three-word summary: Donny Osmond redux
Strengths: He possesses a beautiful, nuanced vocal style. He's "Teen Beat" cute. And he evokes "golly gee willackers" humbleness and sweetness.
Weaknesses: The omniscient presence of his stage dad (recently banned from rehearsals) exacerbates the image that he's a puppet with no mind of his own. He struggles with modern, faster-paced songs, e.g. Chris Brown's "With You" last week. He can overdo the vocal gymnastics, a common "Idol" affliction.
Odds of winning: 4 to 3
Four-word summary: Daughtry, with more soul
Strengths: He can take standard pop songs such as "Hello" and "Always Be My Baby" and turn them into stirring, emotional revelations. He usually does the Nickelback growly routine but as proven during Andrew Lloyd Weber week, he's far more vocally flexible than he appears on the surface.
Weaknesses: He isn't going to win any "hotness" awards. And his attempt at "sexing it up" with a Duran Duran song two weeks ago fell flat. Some critics take his nonchalant confidence as arrogance.
Odds of winning: 3 to 4
Based on history, most of the Top 10 (coming to Gwinnett Arena Aug. 18 for a victory lap) will fade into obscurity. But a few will likely carve out respectable careers. Here's how we rank them in terms of potential to move CDs, sell digital downloads and move concert tix and T-shirts.
David Cook: Properly channeled, he could repeat the success of Daughtry with a pop-rock sound and sustain a long, healthy career.
David Archuleta: His penchant for squishy ballads makes him a tough sell for top 40 radio, but his rabid fans are likely to turn him into a Josh Grobin/Clay Aiken-type darling.
Jason Castro: Whoa! This man could sell albums! He's fully defined as that slacker/surfer Jack Johnson-like dude. But is he motivated enough to do the work to become a real artist?
Brooke White: She's that deep, singer-songwriter type, Carly Simon reinvented. With quality original tunes, she could get support from adult alternative stations and do Variety Playhouse-type concerts.
Kristy Lee Cook: The blonde country singer archetype is already filled by the likes of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Cook isn't as good as either of them. But give her a few decent songs and she'll sell a few albums, at least in the short term.
Michael Johns: The former Buckhead resident, who had a record deal before, brings to the table a sip of rock, a swig of soul and a chug of pretty-boy appeal. But is that a palatable drink for people to open their wallets? His surprisingly early elimination (eighth) is a worrisome sign.
Carly Smithson: Is she a pop star? An edgy rock diva? It was hard to tell week to week who Carly was trying to be. That fuzz imagery could handicap her down the road in terms of sales potential.
Syesha Mercado: She's too much of a chameleon to become a readily identifiable R&B singer like Alicia Keys or Beyonce. Better route for her: Broadway.
Chikezie Ezie: With his exuberant energy and winning smile, he could have a home in the acting world, perhaps doing commercials. As a singer, he tended to lose luster whenever he tried to imitate Luther Vandross. Pure R&B is already a tough arena to sell records. (See Ruben Studdard.)
Ramiele Malubay: Who?
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