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With Millions Watching, Ruben Is Crowned the New 'Idol'

May 22, 2003|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

It's Ruben.

Those not following television's current pop culture phenomenon won't know what that means. Tens of millions of viewers, though, know that the Fox network's much-hyped talent show culminated Wednesday night with a loud, flashy extravaganza that crowned over-sized Ruben Studdard as the new "American Idol."

But although Studdard's victory scored him a major recording contract and countless appearances on talk shows, history has shown that even millions of call-in viewers can't guarantee idol status. Although Kelly Clarkson, winner of the first "American Idol" competition last year, made an initial splash with a No. 1 single and current hit album, other "American Idol" contestants have fallen short of star status. And even Clarkson's releases have not yet shown the staying power of such new stars as Norah Jones or Avril Lavigne.

Studdard's win over runner-up Clay Aiken was revealed during a live national broadcast from the Universal Amphitheatre, which was packed with an overflow crowd of screaming children and teens as well as celebrities such as writer-director Quentin Tarantino and actress Jane Kaczmarek.

The 25-year-old Birmingham, Ala., resident won by a slim margin of 50.28 to 49.72 over Aiken, 24, in a viewer poll that registered more then 24 million calls following a singing showdown Tuesday night. Host Ryan Seacrest told the audience that the vote was closer than last year's competition between Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini.

Fox's talent-show-meets-'Survivor' program has become one of TV's most popular series, growing from a weekly average of almost 13 million viewers when it debuted in January to an average of more than 21 million viewers in recent weeks. Last year, the finale was held in the 3,500-seat Kodak Theatre, but producers moved it this season to the 6,000-seat amphitheater.

But like last season, the interactive element of the series continues to be a sticking point. Some West Coast fans of the show complained Wednesday that they were not able to get through on phone lines to vote, and that they were told by operators that the lines were disconnected. Fox executives said though phone lines are often busy, voters were ultimately able to get through if they kept calling.

Although the coronation of Studdard was the main event of the evening, the finale was a two-hour event featuring performances by the 12 finalists, taped segments spotlighting some of the worst singers in the competition's early rounds, and more. It also served as a promotion for this summer's live concert tour featuring the dozen finalists.

During commercial breaks, Fox relentlessly promoted "American Juniors," a kiddie version of "American Idol" premiering in early June. The new show was developed by the producers of "American Idol."

Both finalists had large followings inside the amphitheater who roared at every high note and wide smile. The judges -- music executive Simon Cowell, singer/choreographer Paula Abdul and record producer Randy Jackson -- also heaped enthusiastic praise on the two as they each performed three songs.

The outcome was a bit of a surprise. Going into Wednesday's show, Aiken appeared to have gained a slight edge over Studdard with his show-ending rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on Tuesday.

Cowell said he felt Aiken had been off "a bit" with his other songs. Although he told Aiken, "you may just have won this competition" after the singer had finished performing the Simon & Garfunkel hit, it was his initial assessments that seemed to persuade voters.

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