Mar 222006
 
Authors: Aaron Barnhart Knight Ridder Newspapers

There must be a good reason why “American Idol” is not only the biggest show in television, but the hottest as well.

From the minute Season 5 began in January, “Idol’s” ratings have been up, way up, over Season 4. About 3 million more are watching, a spike of 11 percent.

In January “Idol” forced President Geena Davis out of ABC’s White House and into an undisclosed location. Last month it reduced NBC’s Winter Olympics to a three-ring circus.

It’s unheard of for a reality show with “Idol’s” mileage to be gaining steam. Why is it?

Not even Mike Darnell knows. The Fox network’s dark prince of reality TV (besides “Idol,” he has “When Animals Attack” to answer for) recently told the publication TelevisionWeek that the growing appeal of “American Idol” was “an almost unanswerable question.”

Is it this year’s talent pool? Can’t be. It’s no deeper than in seasons past, no matter what host Ryan Seacrest says. One theory out there is that, unlike TV’s last phenom, ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” Fox didn’t run “Idol” into the ground with repeated airings. It’s on for just four months a year. Then it’s gone.

In show business as in much of life, absence does make the heart grow fonder. But that hardly explains “Idol’s” massive and growing appeal.

Here’s my theory.

Americans have a lot of choices for music today. They can listen to commercial radio, satellite radio or their iPod mix. They can buy music from artists under contract to major labels or music just in the niches that interest them.

But a singing star is still made only one way. “American Idol” is magnetic for the same reason that “Your Hit Parade” was magnetic on radio and early TV after the war. It’s why Arthur Godfrey and his “Talent Scouts” became so powerful in the 1950s.

“Idol” has grasped a basic truth: Mass taste didn’t go away when the CD burner was invented.

With no help from the recording industry or radio, it has replicated the hitmaker environment that we all took part in during our youth.

The difference between then and now is that Godfrey wouldn’t let anyone on his show until they were ready. I have a CD of Patsy Cline’s first appearance on Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts,” belting out “Walking After Midnight” like a pro, which by then she practically was.

With “Idol,” the stars are no longer delivered to us, shined up and prepackaged. That’s also part of the show’s genius, realizing that we like to watch the sausage getting made.

From the excruciating auditions to the rookie mistakes in the opening rounds to the “Idol” winner’s debut CD _ almost always a million-selling, critically panned, forgettable recording _ we watch a star being born, and the procedure is about as pretty as birth itself.

Extending this questionable analogy, that would make judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul the proud parents, judge Simon Cowell the midwife and host Ryan Seacrest the PR director of the hospital (the only way Seacrest could ape Dick Clark’s career more closely is if he dyed his hair jet black).

Cowell is the show’s one crucial presence. As a successful producer and businessman, he acts as “Idol’s” economic conscience. He is forever reminding the singers not to choose “safe” songs _ a far more withering rebuke than his better known, “That was just horrible,” because failure to take risks means failure to sell records. And selling is the only way to measure stardom.

Sustained risk-taking and consistent selling take years, but it speaks well to the “Idol” format that it has launched a wave of megastars in Canada, Great Britain and other countries.

The first winner here, Kelly Clarkson, has become a polished and creative performer and Grammy winner. She also can’t be bothered to discuss her time on “Idol,” meaning she truly has become a diva.

Compare “Idol” with another musical-talent show currently airing on USA Network, “Nashville Star.” Now in its fourth season, “Nashville Star” has minted some budding country-music artists but is, to put it mildly, not having the impact on America, or even Nashville, that “Idol” is.

Besides the obvious reason _ it’s on cable _ “Nashville Star” suffers from two crucial defects. Unlike “Idol,” which can feature Southern talent like last season’s winner Carrie Underwood and runner-up Bo Bice, “Nashville Star” plays only to the country crowd. Also, “Nashville Star” refuses to let people see the Jimmy Dean getting made, and that’s just bad TV.

Last week’s premiere had less than two minutes of off-key auditions, and then it was on to the star search, featuring only 10 finalists, one of whom was kicked off that night by the panel of judges.

As she left, one of the judges assured her that “we love ya!” and co-host Wynonna comforted the blubbery contestant: “They say it’s God’s timing, not our own.”

“Idol” doesn’t act as though losing is delayed winning. This isn’t a basketball tournament; it’s a once in a lifetime shot at stardom that almost nobody on the show thought they would get. (That’s why the presence of 17-year-old Paris Bennett, the amazing, TV-ready, song-belting prodigy, feels like a cheat: As the granddaughter of Sounds of Blackness great Ann Nesby, Bennett was probably going to get her chance anyway, “Idol” or no “Idol.”)

The endless drama of the show revolves around whether each singer is really ready for that life-changing, potentially soul-quenching head trip … or was destined all along to be a lounge act.

No one embodies this drama more this season than Taylor Hicks, the 29-year-old dues-paying nightclub singer with the Steve Martin hair.

Last week he electrified the “Idol” studio audience with an over-the-top, Gloria Gaynor-empowerment version of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.”

Judge Cowell, in one of his trademark backhanded compliments, declared, “Taylor, your appeal is you’re like every dad who’s ever gotten drunk at a wedding … gone on stage and sang. The difference is, you can sing!”

And he can be a star _ if he wants to be. But Hicks still seems a little too amazed at his success, when at this point in his career he ought to be expecting it. There seems to be a question like that hanging over every contestant, propelling them forward, luring us back to TV’s hit-and-sausage factory.

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