Idol has lived up to its "Search for a Superstar" slogan with the success of Carrie Underwood (Season 4's winner) and Kelly Clarkson (the Season 1 champ), both Grammy winners with multiplatinum albums. Chris Daughtry, fourth in Season 5, has done well on radio, on tour and in CD sales.
"Idol is the quickest rocket ship to the top for a kid wanting to make it in the music business," judge Randy Jackson says.
Last year's winner, Jordin Sparks, initially had slow sales for her self-titled album. Cowell refers to her as "good (but) nothing to let off fireworks about." However, her single Tattoo was a hit and another single, No Air, is "shaping up to be an even bigger record," says Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research.
Others have had less success. Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks and Season 2 champ Ruben Studdard have been dropped by Arista and J Records, two of the labels that take on Idol winners. Season 5 runner-up Katharine McPhee has departed RCA after her debut album sold fewer than 400,000 copies.
At some point, record companies have to cut their losses, Variety music editor Phil Gallo says. Idol's novelty has faded, he says, and "we're reaching the point where they're going to treat people who do well on the show like any other recording artist."
He says the competition should steer clear of quirky singers such as Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken, who hasn't been able to match the sales of his multiplatinum first album. "Because of Clay Aiken they've always said don't judge a book by its cover. But they've wound up with singers really locked into a single style who don't have the varied skills they're looking for" in the record business.
But Idol is still a powerful force in the music industry, Ross says.
"Even 80% of the American Idol effect is plenty to get a record going, enough to get it on radio's docket," he says. "If (Season 5 third-place finisher Elliot Yamin's) Wait For You had walked in without American Idol, on an indie label, it certainly wouldn't have been the hit it was."
Seacrest says slow record sales aren't an indication that Idol winners and finalists are getting weaker, but that they're not making the best musical choices.
"You have to have not only the talent and momentum, you have to have great songs," he says. "Daughtry has hit it big. He's got great songs. There was an appetite for the next Nickelback-type band, that pop-rock band. And that's exactly what he did."
Some Idol alumni are achieving success outside pop music, including Jennifer Hudson (seventh in Season 3), who won the Oscar for best supporting actress last year for her performance in Dreamgirls. Season 3 winner Fantasia has appeared in The Color Purple on Broadway. Last spring's No. 4 finisher, LaKisha Jones, made her debut in Purple recently.
Having the show highlight previous finalists could spark some careers and appeal to the show's dedicated fan base, Lythgoe says. "We'd like to know where other people are. Where is (Season 2's third-place finisher) Kimberley Locke? What is Ruben doing?"
Judging the judges
Cowell says the guys will be the favorites to produce a winner this season; Abdul calls it a toss-up. Both say the younger singers — auditioners range from 16 to 28 — stand out.
"There are a couple of genius-type kids who are musically brilliant," Abdul says.