The "talent contest" is really a popularity contest, as viewers are discovering. Thus, it matters little who actually wins.
It's tempting to think that this week's final vote in Fox's blockbuster talent show, American Idol, will not only pick the recipient of a $1-million record deal, but will also be a referendum on the future of the show itself.
That's because the often surprising vote results have led even longtime fans to question whether the most talented singers in the competition haven't already been eliminated.
It doesn't help that two of the show's biggest upsets - the ejections of Jennifer Hudson and La Toya London, both black women with serious R&B diva chops - helped encourage accusations of racism that have bubbled beneath the surface since the show's 2002 debut.
Tonight, the two finalists square off in a classic battle: bubbly, 16-year-old Georgia peach Diana DeGarmo against the more soulful, prickly 19-year-old Fantasia Barrino in a finale performance expected to draw more than 20-million viewers.
And if DeGarmo - who is less experienced, is considered by some to be less vocally powerful and is white - wins out over Barrino, will viewers finally conclude that Idol's thin premise of picking the country's most talented performer is bankrupt?
Not if you ask Barrino, who said Sunday it doesn't matter who wins this week.
"At this point, it doesn't really matter to me. . . . Out of 70,000 people (who auditioned), I've gotten to the top two (spots), . . . which is a blessing," said the North Carolina resident during a conference call with reporters, noting that Idol judge Simon Cowell has said in interviews that he expects DeGarmo to win. "It doesn't matter if she wins it or I win it. We're both winners."
Certainly, recent history backs up Barrino's words.
Despite his second place showing to winner Ruben Studdard, Idol runner-up Clay Aiken has sold nearly 1-million more albums than his 300-pound pal, co-headlining a nationwide tour with the champion from Idol's first edition, Kelly Clarkson.
Tamyra Gray, who only made it to fourth place in the show's first edition (and whose ejection was one of the first to inspire talk of unfair voting against talented black contestants), just signed a record deal with Idol's 19 Entertainment. William Hung, this Idol edition's most famous reject, has sold nearly 100,000 records despite widespread acknowledgement that he can't sing at all.
Even St. Petersburg native Marque Lynche - chosen for the "wild card" competition to fill Idol's last two finalist spots, only to be eliminated by the judges before he could sing a note - bounced back, landing the lead role in an off-Broadway production of Fame on 42nd Street largely due to his Idol exposure.
"It's a popularity contest more than it is a talent contest," said Lynche, calling from his home in New York City. "I think it's clear that, between the two finalists, Fantasia's the better singer . . . and the bigger star. But you have to go into it recognizing the reality of the contest."
But isn't there something wrong with a talent contest that claims to pick America's biggest idol, only to find that its rejects have much more successful careers?
"What I think is American Idol's biggest problem is that people are getting wise to the fact that it doesn't matter who wins," said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "They're beginning to see that the real competition is to get into the top 12 (finalists). I don't think Kelly or Ruben or Justin or Clay were ever the best pop stars. . . . They were the people who were best at being on American Idol."
Andy Dehnart, creator of the reality TV Web site RealityBlurred.com and a journalism instructor at Stetson University in DeLand, said Idol winners may find their postshow work inhibited by the producers, who retain a tremendous amount of control over those who place highly in the contest.
"They're pigeonholed into being what the show or producers want them to be," said Dehnart. "They can't get the most artistic freedom. . . . And there's lots of pressure to succeed before the next Idol comes along and replaces you."
And there are the voting controversies.
Since Hudson was eliminated a few weeks ago, many news outlets have published stories on how difficult it is to vote for popular Idol contestants. The Associated Press tried placing 100 calls from across the country last week and succeeded in voting four times; Broadcasting and Cable magazine noted that those who have speed dialers or text-message their votes have a clear advantage over conventional callers stuck in jammed phone lines.
And even though Idol producers have defended the integrity of their system, they have agreed to double the voting time for this week's finale, accepting call-in votes more than four hours after tonight's show (something they also did last year).
Dehnart encourages fans to see it as trying to call into the world's largest radio station, which millions of others are also trying to call, creating an expected bottleneck. Thompson said the vote controversies have probably helped Idol, building tremendous interest in the show even as war in Iraq and a pending presidential election grab the media's interest.
"The show is getting buzz again just when you thought American Idol was dying," he said. "In a way, it's all the upside of the (1950s) quiz show scandals with none of the downside: You get all of this hype and interest, but none of it is something illegal that will get you thrown off the air or in jail."
Experts expect Idol producers to make some changes in the wake of widespread complaints, perhaps curbing the age of contestants at 18 and allowing call-in voters to vote only once.
But regardless of Wednesday's outcome, two things seem clear: Idol's system is seriously flawed, and it probably doesn't matter if it is.
"There's an old saying: When a donkey flies, you don't expect it to stay up very long," said Thompson. "American Idol is what it is. It's a terrible way to do a talent contest. But it's a great way to get viewers."
Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.orgAt a glance
American Idol airs tonight at 8, with the two-hour finale Wednesday night at 8, on WTVT-Ch. 13.