Are 'Idol's' Stars for Real, or Just for Reality TV?

"American Idol" makes its triumphant return to TV tonight, and with the Hollywood writers strike still going strong, more viewers than ever may tune in to see Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacreast try to turn a brand new batch of contestants from off-key shower singers to polished pop stars.

But will the seventh season of "Idol" produce a music legend in the making, or just another reality TV trophy-holder?

The last six months have made clear that not all who grace the "Idol" stage go on to find fame and fortune. Season one winner Kelly Clarkson split with her management, sparked a storm of negative press around her third album, and canceled her summer tour. Season four finalist Jessica Sierra made more headlines for her drug and alcohol abuse than her "Idol"-honed talents.

Poor album sales got three "Idol" stars booted from their record labels: Season two winner Ruben Studdard, season five winner Taylor Hicks and season five runner up Katharine McPhee.

And while 2006's "American Idols Live" tour practically sold out, last year's run saw only 68 percent capacity crowds.

Is "American Idol," one of the highest-rated programs on TV, losing its touch?

"I think the program is kind of showing its age right now," said Sean Fennessy, Vibe magazine's associate music editor.

"Jordin Sparks had the lowest debut of an 'Idol' winner on the charts," he added, noting the season six winner's November debut at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart. "That is exceedingly low for someone from a show that had millions of viewers a week."

The Sanjaya Factor

Sure, Sparks' less than stellar debut could be pinned on declining sales throughout the music industry or poor timing. But it could also be because by many accounts, the biggest star of season six was not Sparks -- it was Sanjaya Malakar, the "ponyhawk"-ed pretty-boy who baffled the "Idol" judges by sticking around far longer than his voice warranted, thanks to a cult following among the show's viewers.

The Sanjaya phenomenon -- the 18-year-old spawned YouTube spoofs, conspiracy theories and a legion of "Fanjayas" -- proved again that the "Idol" audience doesn't necessarily care about talent as much as personality. (Engineering nerd William Hung started the trend, scoring 15 minutes of fame and a record deal after belting out Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" in a season three audition.)

"We almost don't have to argue whether the Sanjaya factor undermines 'American Idol's' authority, because the intention of the show isn't about authority in the industry -- it's about giving the viewers what they want," said Lizzy Goodman, Blender magazine's editor at large. "We spend so much time in the industry trying to appeal to the audience, and here's an example of the audience cutting out the middle man. These are pop stars selected by America for America."

In other words, if "Idol's" winners and runners up can't stand alone as pop stars in the greater marketplace, Americans have no one to blame but themselves. But as sales figures show, not all of "Idol's" outputs are failing.

Rocker Chris Daughtry came in fourth place on the fifth season of "American Idol" but went on to beat out all those who beat him when his debut album sold 3.6 million copies and Nielsen named him one of the Top 10 selling artists of 2007.

Season four winner Carrie Underwood's debut album went six times platinum and earned her a Grammy. Her latest CD, "Carnival Ride," has sold more than 2 million copies in the United States, and scored her a slew of country music awards.

"I think it would be easy to dismiss the show if you had victors who came out with the album and it had some quick and dirty sales and then they were never heard from again," said Chuck Taylor, Billboard's senior correspondent. "And certainly, we do have those personalities from the show. But we also have some real long-term talent that has developed as a result of 'American Idol.'"

As it heads into its seventh season, "Idol" plans to tweak its format: Contestants will be allowed to perform with instruments in early rounds, putting more emphasis on talent.

But yesterday, Daughtry, biting the hand that didn't feed him enough, told RollingStone.com that the show's days of relevance may have come and gone.

"I feel like it's definitely lacking some credibility at this point," he said. "It's funny at first, but come on. They spend three weeks on people who can't sing, and that's what they're banking it on. [They should] find some people that you can really invest in."

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