The dueling Davids vying for "American Idol's" crown share an aim and a name. The similarities end there.
David Archuleta, 17, is the squinting, boyish crooner with an aw-shucks demeanor and a penchant for dreamy ballads.
David Cook, 25, is the gel-coiffed, unshaven emo-rocker with quiet self-assurance and versatility.
Archuleta and Cook are locked into the tightest sing-off since Season 2's Clay Aiken-Ruben Studdard bout, "Idol's" most-watched finale and the only other to feature two male finalists.
It's a pairing many expected -- and wanted -- in tonight's last performance show (Fox, 8 ET/PT) and Wednesday's two-hour finale (8 ET/PT), after which one King David will reign as the seventh Idol.
Although Cook has emerged as the online betting favorite, the close matchup of singers with Season 7's most fervid fan bases could boost the finale audience to end a year in which still-No. 1 Idol has lost 8% of its viewers.
Neither Archuleta, "Idol's" front-runner for much of Season 7, nor Cook puts much stock in talk of favorites.
"I've tried not to pay attention to what everybody has been saying. I've just wanted to stay myself. I didn't want anything to get to my head," Archuleta says, although raves for Imagine in the semifinals had him concerned he might be seen as peaking too early.
Cook says he was fortunate to avoid early scrutiny. "I kind of liked coming in without all the buzz. It allowed me a couple of weeks to find myself," he says. "Each week, my goal was just, 'Don't take last.' So now I've kind of run out of options."
The D-day battle royale comes as no surprise to the Idol faithful. In online chatter, Cook and Archuleta are the most popular finalists, ranked first and second respectively by Nielsen Online.
"We've been heading for David vs. David since Week 1 of the finals," says Glenn Gamboa, pop music writer at Newsday. "They've been in a different class. It's not strongly tilted toward either one, but I think Archuleta will win."
Conservative older fans, young speed-dialers who vote multiple times and casual viewers who drop in for the finale should push the Utah high school student over the top, he says.
"I'm very happy with the two singers left, who I think will be the most commercial," says executive producer Nigel Lythgoe.
Lythgoe says several booted singers could have gone the distance, too, in a field most observers say is superior to last year's. "I was sadder this year with people leaving, when Michael Johns left, when Carly (Smithson) left. At the same time, we still have some really good people on the show. It wasn't like (Chris) Daughtry leaving, where you went, 'Are we strong enough now that he's gone?' "
Tonight, Idol moves to the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre, where each singer will perform three songs.
Cook says his songs offer a chance to show off his versatility. "There's an eclectic mix, which I'm excited about. I get to do the real intimate stuff, I get to do the rock song, and I get to do everything in between. I'm stoked."
Archuleta couldn't get at least one song cleared for tonight. "Hopefully, the song I ended up with will work. I'll do the best with it," he says. "I have done my best to show my vocal ability. I wanted to show people why I love music, and I think I've managed to do that."
The teen, who is known for his ballads, plans to show his up-tempo side, too, even after judge Simon Cowell criticized last week's performance of Chris Brown's "With You." Paula Abdul "said to enjoy (performing) and have fun and show everyone I'm doing that."
Gamboa disagrees with that frisky turn. To capture votes tonight, "Archuleta needs to stick to his guns. He is a Dan Fogelberg, David Foster kind of kid. Trying to be contemporary wasn't a smart move. In terms of demographics, he's like Clay Aiken, but Archuleta's fans may not feel the same intensity of love."
Cook shouldn't abandon his strengths, either, Gamboa says. "Improvising and reworking songs got David Cook this far. He could be a best seller tomorrow. His sound fits in with Nickelback, Daughtry. It's what people are buying right now. That's a no-brainer."
'Fatigue factor' for ratings
Even with a better group of singers, ratings dipped (27.9 million this year vs. 30.2 million in 2007) .
Perhaps the chief cause is natural viewer erosion that eventually strikes even the biggest hits. That is one reason Fox announced it will shorten 2009's results shows to a half-hour. The network also is considering condensing audition shows to avoid diluting ratings.
"There's been a fatigue factor setting in a little bit," says Brad Adgate of ad buyer Horizon Media.
A wave of reality shows, which attract similar audiences, may have taken a ratings toll during the writers' strike, and there was no Sanjaya-esque train wreck to pull in TV rubberneckers. Some blame older mentors and songs for a loss of 11% in younger fans (18-49).
The average age of songs this year (31.5 years) is the oldest to date and six years older than those in 2007, according to "Idol" database whatnottosing.com. Says Carat analyst Shari Anne Brill, "Nothing chases away younger viewers better than mentors and songs unrelatable to that audience."
Lythgoe calls this season's music "superb" and says songs today are not as melodic as they once were. He's proud of Idol Gives Back, which raised $65 million this year and drew 17.8 million viewers, even though it had no elimination. However, he is concerned that Idol may have too many product placements, an area not in his control.
Adgate expects Wednesday's finale to draw roughly 28 million, down from 2007's 30.7 million. Still, he says Idol remains dominant and predicts it will be No. 1 next year, too. "Any one of those other networks would take this show in a heartbeat."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak, who writes Idol recaps for ew.com, sees a darker side to the ratings slide. It stems partly from an "arrogance I've never seen before. The show consistently damaged its own credibility."
He accuses "Idol" of a transparent mission to send Davids A. and C. to the finish line. Last Tuesday, Cowell declared Archuleta a finalist and Cook the winner of the night.
"If allowed to play out organically, it might have ended this way, but it's disheartening that the producers got what they wanted," Slezak says. "It's a story arc and agenda they pushed hard for."
Requiring Syesha Mercado, eliminated last week, to sing Hit Me Up from Happy Feet "was a vicious case of sabotage," he says. "They didn't need to make it that obvious. The viewers are smarter than the show gives them credit for."
Lythgoe rejects the notion that Idol favored a double-David. Syesha "made a poor choice herself with Fever. Until that point, (the judges) had been very strong in Syesha's favor. Fever tipped the balance."
And, he adds, Cowell ridiculed Fogelberg's Longer, the producers' song choice for Archuleta, as suitable for a 90-year-old.
Who stays and who goes "has nothing to do with the judges at that point," he says. "It's about who people are going to vote for."
As in previous seasons, both finalists will release albums.
Cook wants "a pop-based rock" record, citing such influences as Switchfoot and Jimmy Eat World. Archuleta will seek music "that's in the soul," along with pop that fits someone his age.
A tricky question awaits: Can either David be a Goliath on the pop chart?
Male winners have fared far worse than multiplatinum champs Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Y-chromosome Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks were booted from their labels, and even runner-up Clay Aiken, an initial blockbuster, has seen diminishing returns on Idol fame. Daughtry, who ranked fourth in Season 5, is the only male to achieve major success.
To recapture its reputation for minting stars, "Idol absolutely needs Cook to win," Slezak says. "They need a radio and recording star, not another Taylor-type flop."
The 'Clay trajectory'
Archuleta's career after Idol probably will take the Josh Groban route, though vocally he can't catch the pop-classical tenor, Slezak says. "And nobody on radio will play that. He may follow the Clay trajectory of Idol fans buying the first album, then sales peter out by the third album, and he makes a nice living singing at Christmas tree lighting ceremonies."
Gamboa says the less-dedicated viewers who could push Archuleta over the top aren't people who buy records. "His win means the show serves more as a form of entertainment and not as a means of creating new music stars."
Judges may have handicapped Archuleta by glossing over his deficits, Slezak says. "He's one of the most technically gifted vocalists, but not one of the best singers. There's a huge disconnect between the notes coming out of his mouth and words. He doesn't seem to enjoy being up there. He looks like he might collapse or throw up."
Wednesday's David-or-David coronation leaves "Idol" less than three months away from the Season 8 audition cycle. Despite a recent public focus on audience satisfaction surveys, don't expect wholesale changes next year.
Singers again will be allowed to play instruments. Those with previous recording deals, though faulted for having an unfair advantage, enhanced the show and will be back, Lythgoe says. So will host Ryan Seacrest and the judges. "I love the chemistry," he says.
"We will continue to concentrate on how to improve ourselves," Lythgoe promises. But "we are still a very sprightly 7-year-old."