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Our `Idol' obsession

April 19, 2006|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

NOW in its fifth year, "American Idol" has become a ratings juggernaut and a national obsession. It handily defeats even the toughest competitors, even the Winter Olympics and "Lost."

This season, the singing contest has hit its highest note yet: An average of 31 million Americans are tuning in to watch Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Taylor Hicks and the others vie for instant success and celebrity, to follow in the recording contract footsteps of previous Idols Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia and Carrie Underwood.

Last year, the show that effectively handed Fox its first trophy in the race for 18-to-49-year-olds for the whole season became a bona fide phenomenon with an average of 26 million viewers.

So, what is it that has so captivated America? Is it Simon Cowell's biting way with words, Paula Abdul's antics, Randy Jackson's lingo? Perhaps it's the sardonic interplay between Cowell and Ryan Seacrest? Or is there something in the show that speaks to the wannabe celebrity in all of us?

The Times asked network executives, writers, historians, music executives and even a comedian to dissect the show to solve the mystery of why "American Idol" has come to rule the airwaves.

Kurt Andersen

Novelist and host of public radio's "Studio 360"

I am [a fan], I admit guiltily. I don't care about the actual music. I like the really terrible people and watching Simon Cowell telling them they're rubbish.

When I was a kid, we had "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour" and "Star Search," so it's not like an entirely new genre. In this age, many millions of Americans are obsessed with celebrity for its own sake, and obviously people who participate have a chance to become famous. And people watching get off on that vicariously.

The idea that the door to celebrity is permeable was proved after its first season. Most of the contestants on "The Amateur Hour" and "Star Search" were never heard of again. These winners get more than 15 minutes of fame. It gave credibility to the audience that it was the real thing, not just a TV stunt. Also, unlike those previous incarnations, it is all about Simon Cowell. There's a guy who's being blunt and honest about his professional opinion.

It's interesting, this pure-fantasy aspect of people out there, normal Joes and Jills who are capable of greatness and fame combined with the brutal honesty that is part of the show, it's a fresh kind of entertainment.

Barry Weiss

Chief Executive/President of Zomba Label Group

This is really the new pop. If you see what's happened with "High School Musical" from Disney Channel/Buena Vista Records, and you look at what's happened here with "American Idol," music on TV is a huge phenomenon outside of America. It's been untapped in America. It's just been totally untapped. I don't think anybody who is not from America is surprised at all by the success of "American Idol" and what it has meant to the music industry at large. It's a salient point that music and television go together really, really well -- and real exposure of music, not necessarily an artist doing one song on a TV show sort of thing.

The other element is plain-old human interest. People love a competition. They love a beauty contest. And they love rooting for people. It combines everything that people love. They love rooting for the underdog. All those things combined have helped make it the phenomenon that it is.

I don't think that Kelly Clarkson's Grammy awards or 5 1/2 million records has anything to do with it. I just think people love this show. It combines great TV and music. It's like lightning in a bottle, sort of like one plus one equals three.

Neal Gabler

Cultural historian and author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality"

The most important thing is the sense of empowerment. It truncates the process of someone becoming a star. Ordinarily it takes years of training, years of hits and misses, years of working in clubs trying to land a recording contract. [The show] makes us the ones who are ultimately responsible. It says to the whole entertainment industry, "You are not in control. We are."

Generally [the winners are] not the kinds of people who would ever have made it. Kelly Clarkson is too fat. Ruben Studdard is too fat. [Runner-up] Clay Aiken is too geeky. It operates on the principle that people who never would have made it otherwise will make it because of us, our magnanimity. Whoever wins is going to be a star. It's not only dramatic, but there is something almost moving in taking a Kelly Clarkson ... and giving her that gift.

That is the greatest gift you can give in modern America. It's about our empowerment.

Lauren Zalaznick

President of Bravo

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