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Countdown to the final 24 contestants

As the fifth season of American Idol entertains record audiences, one thing is clear: Western New York has a front-row seat.

Having Amherst teenager John Stevens in the third season in 2004 fanned the flames of local interest, but Stevens is now enrolled at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and getting on with his life. While the rest of us . . . well, we're more glued to the tube on Tuesday and Wednesday nights than ever.

Last Wednesday's show on WUTV had a 23.7 rating, making it No. 5 among the major markets in the nation. Channel 29's local ratings for the first six episodes are 19 percent higher than Fox's market average and 22 percent higher than last season.

So we're on the "American Idol" bandwagon. We'll be monitoring it from the opening bouncy theme music to the happy tears (we hope!) of the final Idol. Watch for weekly recaps of the most righteous and retch-worthy moments, as well as highlights on the best snark, smarm and snarl. And, to add a bit of pure musical evaluation to what is, after all, a song competition, Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers will occasionally weigh in with a noteworthy evaluation of the show.

What's coming up tonight at 8 p.m. on Channel 29: the Hollywood round finishes up, with only 24 contestants moving on to the next level. Tough rehearsals and pressure-cooker auditions are designed to weed out the weakest.

The early favorite: Paris Bennett of Fayetteville, Ga., whose vocal stylings wowed even straight-talking Simon. Can she live up to the high expectations?

Gonzo, gonzo, gone: "Crazy Dave" Hoover. As he took the stage, the leaping gnome said, "People of the universe, honorable overlords, you are now in the presence of Mr. Dubious." Ha! The barefoot boy was barely bearable, but unforgettable, in a William-Hung-esque way.

Sweet and simple: Aw shucks, that Garet Layne Johnson! First time on a plane, first time seeing the ocean, first time on a big stage! "This is the first time I've been out in public really," the 18-year-old crooning cowboy from Veteran, Wyoming, told the judges.


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