Not even an ego as big as Simon Cowell's saw this coming.
Four years after launching, "American Idol" is garnering its highest ratings, a rarity in the fickle television industry.
"Twenty years' experience in this business would tell me that nobody is immune from audience decline," co-executive producer Ken Warwick said. "So to tell you the truth, we're even a little surprised to be in the fourth season and still be increasing in viewership and getting 30 million votes [each week]. There's just something about the show that attracts people."
Actually, it seems it's not just one thing, but several elements together that have propelled "American Idol" to the top of the ratings.
Between the various sources interviewed for this story — some affiliated with "Idol," some just fans — almost a dozen reasons were cited for the show's increasing success, beginning with the basic formula of the show.
"There isn't a huge format to this," co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe explained. "It's a number of people entering a talent competition and whittling them down. That isn't a format you can get tired of. You can get tired of it if we continually have the same people, but the great thing about 'American Idol' is it lives and dies on the talent of that season. I think some seasons the talent isn't going to be as good, and other seasons, particularly this season, I think will be a benchmark for other seasons. I think the talent this year is exceptionally good."
The better the singers, the better the numbers, is a popular, if not obvious, theory. "It's fun to watch people sing and that are really actually good," singer Ryan Cabrera said.
And the singers seem to get better as the show gains more credibility, which is fueling a cycle of rising ratings.
"This show is not a fluke, it's not cheesy, it's not like it doesn't mean anything in the industry," Paula Abdul explained. "These artists are now becoming certifiable main staples in the industry. Look, Kelly Clarkson is a major force to be reckoned with, and I think now this show has proven to be just that. And with Fantasia winning, she woke up that real, unique, authentic talent."
For once, Simon agreed. "Because of Fantasia winning show three, the show became a bit cooler and we attracted cooler contestants, particularly the guys," he mused. "We were getting a lot of stage school people in previous seasons, and this year we got more credible artists."
Of course, the best contestants have more than superior voices, they have superior personalities, too, and the producers this season have tried harder than ever to make those shine. During one of the first few audition episodes, for instance, Ryan Seacrest followed Carrie Underwood home, establishing her as the small-town girl with big dreams.
"I think because there is a story with a heart to each person that gets up there, you really start to feel them and what they go through, and you start rooting for them and just fall in love with them," said Desmond Child, the music producer behind the just-released "American Idol" album.
That people like Underwood can get a chance to launch a career through the show only adds to the emotion surrounding it.
"It's really tweaked the imagination of the viewer because basically you are saying, 'Well, that could be me,' " Child added. "[The contestants] are like an everyman up there, and people love that."
Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger, who got her start on "Popstars," can relate to the "Idol" contestants, and thinks millions of others can as well. "Everybody has their own dream, and [with 'Idol'] they get to live through these other people that they watch," she said.
"It's about the American dream," co-executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz added. "It's about taking people who live a normal life in some remote part of the country but have an amazing talent, discovering that talent and making a dream come true. I think there's something very powerful about that."
As "Making the Band" has proved, viewers also enjoy watching a transformation. "We look forward to seeing people become artists," singer Ciara said.
Another essential element is that unlike other reality shows, viewers get to choose who wins. "It's not about the producers," Frot-Coutaz said. "We're only there to facilitate it, and I think that makes it very special."
"Back in the day, 'Star Search' was so popular when I was growing up, but this is like 'Star Search' with added drama because you get to vote, so it's a more personal thing," Backstreet Boys singer Kevin Richardson said.
Because who gets eliminated each week is determined by votes, it also makes the show unpredictable. For instance, that Scott Savol lasted so long became a story in itself, something that wouldn't have existed if the judges were in charge. "It ends up being like a soap opera," music producer Jimmy Jam said.
When better singers are eliminated, it tends to trigger conspiracy theories ranging from the voting system to the amount of airtime the contestant received. And in what has become almost ritual, that's just the beginning of the controversy. This season alone there was a finalist who quit, two who had previous legal charges surface, a revote, and a judge accused of having an affair with a past contestant (see " 'Idol' Singer Bo Bice Has Drug Rap Sheet, Court Papers Show"). Maybe not ideal, but certainly all ratings boosters.
"Controversy is what our show thrives on," Cowell admitted. "I like the fact that things don't always go the way you expect them to go, because it keeps the show more interesting. So as long as it's controversial, I'm happy."
Finally, there's one secret to the success that only the producers noted, but that might be the most important.
"We go offscreen for seven to eight months so fans have enough time away to want to come back and watch it again," Lythgoe said. "Everyone looks forward to the return."
Whatever the case, the producers are on a hot streak that's showing no signs of cooling.
"It's never failed in any country, and it's been in 50 countries," Warwick boasted. "But honestly, the show's audience ratings don't overly concern me. They concern the people who make all the money, they concern the network, but I have to say personally, you just give the best program you can every week and hope for the best."