'Idol' Wins With All-David Finale

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."

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