HOLLYWOOD — Two big winners emerged from the Kodak Theatre Wednesday — Fantasia Barrino and "American Idol" itself.
In the process of crowning the 19-year-old single mom, the FOX show attracted more than 25 million viewers, making it one of the most watched events of the year (see " 'I Made It' Declares Tearful 'Idol' Winner Fantasia Barrino"). And with 65 million votes cast, nearly triple the number from last season, there's clear evidence fans are more dedicated than ever.
Host Ryan Seacrest made mention of a fourth season during Wednesday's finale, and there's been no talk of the show coming to an end, which begs the question: How long can something this good last?
Kimberley Locke, who finished third last season, thinks not long.
"I'm over it," she said recently. "When they did 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' show, and they brought William Hung back, I was like, 'Oh, they're focusing on the bad.' And I think that's what happened to the show. I think that's why the talent really didn't get recognized this year."
Locke was impressed with Fantasia but saw the early departures of Jennifer Hudson, George Huff and La Toya London as a sign of the show's imminent demise. "If they don't fix it, it's [going to fizzle]," Locke said. "They're going to have to change the voting process and get some really talented people next year and let that talent shine."
Another concern with the future of "American Idol" is overkill. While long-lasting shows like "Friends" air once a week, "Idol" always broadcasts twice, and sometimes three or four times counting various specials. And the show's 40 or so episodes a year is twice the amount of a typical series.
"That's always the million-dollar question when you have a successful show, 'How much is going to be too much?' " Seacrest pondered. "If you were to ask me what's going to happen with reality shows in general a few months ago, I would have probably said I think we may be at a saturation point, but most shows are performing better than ever.
"It seems that when we do a bonus 'Idol' show, if it's a Monday special or an extended Wednesday or Tuesday show, people continue to watch," he added.
"American Idol" producers, Seacrest said, avoid overkill by spreading out each season. "They were smart in only doing this once a year," he added. "You know that once it goes away, it's going to be awhile, and hopefully the appetite to have it back will be large by the time it comes back."
Still, the host is hesitant to commit to a long-term contract. "The judges and myself, we're all looking at it just sort of one season at a time," he said. "We want to put on a compelling show that people want to turn on each week."
Randy Jackson guesses the show will last another three years, mainly because the talent improves each year, making it more interesting.
"I think that we haven't seen the most successful winner yet," the judge said earlier this season. "At some point, the odds are in our favor that we'll find the next Mariah, Whitney, Justin Timberlake, Celine. I don't think we've found that yet, but I think at some point, the odds are we could discover that."
Ruben Studdard, last year's winner, sees a long future for the show simply because the stars it produces are good for the entertainment business. "It's not only helped TV, it's helped the record industry," he said. "It's proven that albums can be sold."
Tamyra Gray, a favorite in the first season, also sees "Idol" filling an important void that should keep it around awhile.
"I didn't think it would make it through the second season, but it's proving to be something that people like, and it's because people are hearing good songs again and some of their favorites they don't hear a lot on the radio these days," Gray said. "And it's putting singers back out there ... It would be a good thing if it stuck around."