Rocker David Cook named new 'American Idol'
When David Cook was announced as the winner of "American Idol" Wednesday night at the Nokia theater, the most dramatic upset in the show's history was just another twist in a season that has tested the still-vibrant franchise.
The 25-year-old became the first performer in the rock music mold to win, amassing 56% of 96 million votes, to 44% for 17 year old prodigy David Archuleta, who sings in the pop balladeer style that had previously dominated "Idol."
Before the verdict was announced, Judge Simon Cowell thanked both for being perhaps the "nicest" contestants the show has seen, underscoring the fact that the Fox hit has achieved its success with a G-rated strategy that reaches across cultural divides of all types - ethnic, economic, generational, even musical.
With network television and the music industry both up against a fractured audience and new forms of media, Cook and runner-up Archuleta became standard bearers for today's broad-based popular culture. "Idol" remains the only show able to consistently deliver vast numbers of viewers, even eclipsing the Oscars.
However, after a season in which the series came under fire for various offstage controversies and suffered a mid-season sag in its ratings, television's titan stands at a crossroads. It remains to be seen whether this year's ratings dip is a one year phenomenon or the first step on the inevitable downward spiral all successful TV shows must eventually face.
For the moment, Fox network brass are sufficiently concerned that they have made public statements promising major, though as yet unspecified, changes when the show returns in January. With broad-based musical hits becoming harder and harder to generate, the Idol machine's ability to fulfill its original mission of creating "the next pop star" has also been called into question. Some, such as Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, have gone on to stardom, but several others have not mustered major careers.
The show has always been subjected to the sharp news lens normally reserved for Presidential candidates or jail-bound starlets, and season seven saw Idol seemingly struggle at times to control its own storyline. In past years, the show has been remarkably successful at framing the terms of the debate, bringing its hiccups onto the screen and showing a willingness to poke fun at itself.
This year, with the internet-driven media ever more unleashed, the show has had to grapple with several sensitive storylines. There were reports that Archuleta's father was banned from backstage for interfering with the production, and eyebrows were raised when a seemingly off-kilter judge Paula Abdul rendered a verdict on a performance that had not occurred yet.
Still, the bigger audiences returned for what was billed as the strongest finals match-up in years. Archuleta, who himself was practically weaned on the show, having watched since he was 10 years old, had often seemed invincible, with technically flawless renditions of pop favorites.
But Cook, who at one point was told by Cowell that he was without charisma, surged with a string of rock reimaginations of such hits as "Billie Jean" that drew massive ovations from audiences.
The show seems in the finale to have rebounded from its mid-season ratings dip. "American Idol" premiered to an audience of 33.5 million total viewers, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research -- putting it ahead of the Oscars telecast to become the season's number two rated program, trailing only the Superbowl. But the ratings subsequently tumbled, falling as low as 21.8 million for one show - the lowest figure in three years.
Still, even that is a number most TV shows would kill for.
Season Seven's young contestants also reflected the new, multi-ethnic face of America: Three of the four finalists - Jason Castro, Syesha Mercado and Archuleta -- had at least partly Latino origins, yet the huge differences in their styles (laidback hippie crooning for Castro, cerebral jazz for Mercado and soulful ballads for Archuleta) also revealed the great diversity within this demographic.
In a time when ever edgier reality television shows dominate the network airwaves, "American Idol" almost seems like a pristine throwback to a gentler time. While other competition shows are routinely driven by the spectacle of contestants who are at each others' throats -- often quite literally -- with hair pulling and name calling being the norm, the two "Idol" finalists took the stage this week gushing with good will for each other. Cook even declared Tuesday that "the competition is over. It's all about having fun now."
The atmosphere of camaraderie amidst the weekly deathblows is certainly an intentional part of the "Idol" universe, with a crew that seems much more like a happily family relishing their work than the typical TV production staff. It may be this spirit of fun yet gentle competition that has helped "Idol" retain its status as the one show on television that still attracts entire families, across the generational divide.
However, as producers look ahead and consider the ratings sag of this year, part of their calculation must be: How much do viewers want fights and freak-shows instead of a face-off based on pure talent?
While this year's group was considered by many commentators to be the most talented overall in the show's history, the uniformity of talent deprived the show of the train-wreck interest summoned, for example, by last year's contestant Sanjaya Malakar. Viewers enjoyed the spectacle of his weekly public belly flops.
Nonetheless, with an end of the year ratings rebound and a handful of talents -- including the two finalists -- with seemingly very strong commercial potential, Idol obituaries may soon look extremely premature.
--Scott Collins contributed reporting for this story
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