At The Rate It's Going, Will 'Idol' Ever Face Competition?

TV show's ratings up nearly 20 percent from a year ago.

At the rate "American Idol" is going, in five years, every teenage girl in America who watches TV on Tuesday and Wednesday will be tuning in to the show.

In other words, half that demographic is choosing "Idol" now — out of an average 100 channels per home — and is largely contributing to the average 31.3 million viewers on Tuesday nights and 29.4 million on Wednesdays this season.

Those numbers are up nearly 20 percent from a year ago, making "Idol" one of the few shows in television history to increase its ratings after five seasons.

"Who is to say that it won't keep doing this five, 10 years from now?" said Andrew Wallenstein, senior TV reporter for the Hollywood Reporter. "I think it's in a class all by itself."

The fifth season of "Idol," which comes to an end Wednesday, shattered everything that came in its path, from the Grammys to the Winter Olympics. Most nights, the show's ratings doubled those of ABC, CBS and NBC combined. And for this week's finale, 30-second commercials are selling for $1.3 million, behind only the Super Bowl and the Oscars.

"What normally happens with ratings is there's a segment at the bottom that drops away, so shows stay pretty constant [or decline]," "Idol" co-executive producer Ken Warwick said. "But we're not losing them. Once we got them, they stay with us, and the additions just keep adding up."

"People think, 'Oh gosh, these people came off the street, why would I want to watch this Fox reality show?' " former "Idol" finalist and current "Idol Tonight" co-host Kimberly Caldwell said of the ratings increase. "Then, when's no one's watching, they sit down and watch one episode and they're hooked."

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"Idol" definitely seems to be an addiction (no Katharine McPheever jokes here, please), with several ingredients making up the toxic concoction, from the sportslike competition factor to the water-cooler aspect — "If you haven't seen the program, you can't take part in those conversations," Warwick said.

But the most important aspect, according to several "Idol" experts, is the singers.

"The show has definitely demonstrated a savvy in the last two years for casting new and interesting types that will expand the show's market," said Jacob Clifton, who covers "Idol" for "Those 18 to 49 males that didn't have time for Clay [Aiken] or Diana [DeGarmo] may have gotten interested in Bo [Bice], and this year, there are several contestants like Taylor [Hicks] and Chris [Daughtry] who push the line even further into that territory."

"It's becoming much more than this thing for kids," added Roy Trakin, senior editor of music-industry magazine Hits. "It's for families to sit around and watch. In a world that's becoming more and more niche, here's a tradition that's like ['The Ed Sullivan Show']. One minute you got a comic, the next it's a juggler, then the Beatles or the Stones. It's a cross-generational appeal, and it's really the earmark of pop-culture appeal."

Not only are the contestants getting more diverse, but most agree they continue to get better with each season.

"There's six kids there that I think could have won in any other season," co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said of this season's finalists.

And for that reason, those behind "Idol" agree the show could very well continue to grow for another five or 10 years.

"I think the show can keep going for a long, long time," Randy Jackson said. "I think America is just chock-full of talent, and there's a kid turning 16 every year with talent."

And what "Idol" has also improved on each season is not just finding that talent, but telling their story so compellingly that fans want to invest their time in them.

"Viewers are fascinated by the people that walk through that door," Warwick said. "Sometimes their story is heart-wrenching or ridiculous or whatever, and they get connected with that. It's something that does seem to affect females more than guys. Guys will look at it and go, 'What an idiot. Look at him. Go get a life.' But the girls become involved in the kind of hopes and dreams of the kids that are good."

Former finalist Jon Peter Lewis calls it the Cinderella factor. "Most people dream from 9 to 5 that they could somehow leave it all behind and do what they've always wanted," he said.

" 'American Idol' is really a lot like the lottery," Wallenstein added. "You've got millions of people from around the country that are punching their ticket, who want to win big, and at the end of the day one person is going to have outrageous success. That is great suspense."

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