As 'American Idol' Nears Finale, Revamp Has Proven (Mostly) a Success

Average Ratings are Up and Younger Viewers Seem to be Coming Back

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Judann Pollack
Judann Pollack

I walked to work today with Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You" on repeat. It seemed appropriate given last night's "American Idol."

When I started this "journey" -- to use a Seacrestian term -- to chronicle the restaging of an iconic American media brand, I said that the producers had two major goals: pump up flagging ratings and reel in younger viewers. The median age had reached 45, a bit long in the tooth for advertisers.

By that standard, Idol and Co. seems to have succeeded. Season-to-date ratings have averaged 25 million, up from 24.1 million a season before, according to Nielsen, a solid feat for a decade-old property that underwent a major overhaul.

Viewership may be losing steam: Last week -- when James Durbin, my pick to win, got booted off -- both the Wednesday and Thursday programs brought in fewer than 24 million viewers. Still, that 's not too shabby.

It has also managed to move the needle younger, at least for one of each week's two episodes. This season through the week ended May 15, "Idol" on Wednesday (the performance show) averaged approximately 9.3 million same-day viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, according to Nielsen, compared to about 8.9 million for the performance episodes in the same period in 2010. Idol on Thursday (the results show) drew about 8.5 million same-day viewers between 18 and 49, compared to about 8.6 million for results shows in the year-earlier time period.

The final two: Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery
The final two: Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery Credit: Michael Becker/Fox

Better yet, the viewers are engaged, no doubt to AT&T's great joy. This week some 95 million votes were cast, which Ryan Seacrest informed us was the biggest non-finale tally in "Idol" history, and 15 million more than last year. The fact that those millions of votes were criminally miscast, sweeping Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery into the finale, is another point entirely.

Or maybe it is entirely the point.

That I cared enough to curse at my TV, tweet my outrage ("It's official. The world has gone barking mad. #americanidol") and stomp around my living room says a lot about the show. What it does best is present the illusion of a rags-to-riches story (an illusion because some prior Idols have gone on to obscurity). And it does this very well. Last night's homecoming was beautifully done, presenting touching stories of kids overwhelmed by the outpouring of love in their communities over their achievement.

We saw Lauren surveying tornado damage in her Georgia hometown and tearing up while meeting a brave and adorable young boy who saved his family from the devastation. There was the big burly bodyguard for Haley Reinhard bawling his eyes out upon spying the lines of admirers in Wheeling, Ill., cheering on their hometown Idol. And Scotty being surprised on stage in Garner, N.C., by his personal idol, country singer Josh Turner, who snuck on to join him in "Your Man," which Scotty had made his own signature on the show by repeating the opening lines "Baby lock them doors and turn them lights down low."

When Scotty said, earnestly, into the camera, "I've only lived 17 years so far, but this might be the best day of my life," I wasn't even tempted to laugh.

The fact that finalists Scotty and Lauren are 17 and 16, respectively, also means the producers achieved another goal: to anoint a young, highly sale-able winner. It has not been lost on anyone that the real "Idol" moneymaker is country singer Carrie Underwood, and with both finalists firmly in her genre, no doubt "Idol" creator Simon Fuller is already setting up new bank accounts in Nashville.

But there have been payoffs for viewers as well, at least in terms of entertainment: Steven Tyler spouting crazy bon mots and sporting pants that seemed crafted from the Bronx Zoo cobra; Haley's dad playing lead guitar to her soulful rendition of Zepplin's "What Is and What Should Never Be" (prescient considering her ouster the next day); and Nicole Scherzinger channeling Pocahontas in a duet with 50 Cent and Beyonce in a video so bad I was wishing the rules allowed us to vote her out. Next week's finale is guaranteed to be fun -- it's what "Idol" does better than any other show on the planet -- with huge names, lavish numbers, lots of surprises and a performance by the last Idol worthy of the title, David Cook.

I loved and hated Idol by turns this season. Which is , I submit, a good thing -- at least I cared, which a series that has been around this long can't take for granted. I still believe Jimmy Iovine is not right for the show and that the judges have to toughen up if "Idol" is going to continue on a positive trajectory. In other words, the rebrand still needs tweaking. But what rebrand doesn't?

On Monday at the Fox upfront at Central Park's Wollman Rink, I lined up to get my picture taken with James Durbin. As we stood there smiling for the camera, I whispered to him, "You got robbed. I think you should have gone all the way." His response was, "It's all good."

You know what? He may have been right.

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