For five straight years, Vicky Conlu wouldn’t have thought of missing a single episode of “American Idol.” If the show was on the air, she was there.
But this season, the unthinkable happened: The Antioch, Calif., teen, who proclaimed herself to be “one of the biggest `Idol’ heads on the planet,” suddenly started going AWOL.
“It has been the weakest season ever,” she said in her defense. “I feel like the whole thing has lost a bit of its glamour.”
She isn’t the only one who feels that way. As “American Idol” prepares to crown its winner Wednesday, legions of fans and critics continue to grumble that the show’s sixth season has been largely a snoozefest beset by lackluster singers and a feeling of sameness. Although it remains television’s top-ranked program by a wide margin, “Idol” has seen its ratings slip in recent weeks - normally a time when the show builds to a rousing crescendo.
Could it be that one of pop culture’s greatest powerhouses is finally showing signs of vulnerability?
“There might not be a real cause for alarm, but maybe at least for some puzzlement,” said Matt Roush, critic for TV Guide, who points out that ratings for most popular TV shows are down this spring. “Still, I wouldn’t start filling out the death notices just yet.”
Meanwhile, Peter Liguori, entertainment chief for Fox, the network that airs “Idol,” is unfazed, despite the fact that last week, “Idol” for the first time ever was edged out in the key 18-to-49 demographic ratings by “House,” which airs afterward. Last week’s “Idol” performance episode attracted 25.4 million viewers - almost 3 ½ million fewer than the same night last season.
“We’re mindful of the numbers,” Liguori said. “But it’s still a very fertile, very popular juggernaut of a show.”
There’s no denying, however, that Season 6 was a turnoff for many longtime viewers, who feel the show’s field of competitors lacked vivid personalities - Sanjaya Malakar notwithstanding - as well as a diversity of musical styles.
“The show wasn’t cast as well this season,” said Michael Slezak, who writes witty recaps of “Idol” for Entertainment Weekly’s Web site, www.ew.com. “The (producers and judges) let a lot of people slip during the audition process who would have given the show a cool, quirky vibe.”
The result, he said, was an overload of “R&B types among the females and Justin Timberlakey types among the males” - clearly not the right mix for many viewers, including Cindy Walker, 54, a Pleasanton, Calif., resident who has followed “Idol” from the start.
“A couple of the girls jumped out - Melinda (Doolittle) and Jordin (Sparks) - but none of the guys ever did anything for me,” she said. “It just didn’t feel like the same show I fell in love with.”
The dearth of captivating personalities was surely a factor in the improbable rise of Sanjaya, a charmingly goofy teen contestant who was more notable for his shaggy mane than his singing voice. When it came to big buzz, Sanjaya eclipsed both “Idol” finalists (Sparks and Blake Lewis), as well as its best vocalist (Doolittle).
In doing so, he had a polarizing effect among fans, some of whom deemed him to be the show’s most exciting attraction, and others who saw him as an integrity-draining annoyance.
“He seemed really genuine and nice and funny,” said Katherine Wei, a freshman at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, Calif., who falls squarely into Sanjaya’s camp. “After he left, the fun went out of the show.”
Not so, counters Juley Salkeld, 47, of San Ramon, Calif.
“The whole Sanjaya thing was just so yucky and dismaying that I started to think that we should take the vote away from America,” she said. “His leaving was the highlight of the season.”
Slezak, who describes Sanjaya as the “perfect Disney Channel-type heartthrob,” wasn’t as bothered by him as some (“Every season has a contestant who goes further than he should”), but he does believe producers made a key mistake by not enabling the audience to develop a better feel for other contestants.
“They seemed to focus so much on the guest mentors (like Diana Ross and Tony Bennett) and that left us with less time to make an emotional connection to the contestants,” he said. “We didn’t really get to know these people, and, as a result, we didn’t care quite as much when they were sent home.”
Despite all the flak it has received, “Idol” will complete its fifth straight season as TV’s No. 1 show (it aired in the summer its first season) - a feat previously accomplished by only “All in the Family” (1971- 76) and “The Cosby Show” (1985-90), according to Marc Berman, who crunches the TV numbers for Mediaweek.
“The magic of `Idol’ is that appeals to everyone from little kids to the grandparents,” he said. “And it sucks you in like a vacuum cleaner.”
In their sixth seasons, both “All in the Family” and “Cosby” took a tumble - the former falling to No. 12, the latter to No. 5. Don’t be surprised, then, if “Idol” slips some next season, said Berman, but it probably won’t be a significant drop-off.
“Yes, it may have developed some cracks in the armor, but this show isn’t going to go anywhere for a very long time,” he said. “It has the perfect formula in that it’s on the air for only five months and then it rests for seven. By the time it returns, the hype and anticipation has built right back up.”
That’s something to which even Conlu can agree.
“I may be down on the show right now,” she said. “But by next January, when those promotional commercials come around, I’ll probably be all excited and telling people, `OK, OK, `Idol’s back and I’m watching, so don’t anybody bug me!”“