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'Idol' worship This quirky talent show has changed everything from the music business to pop culture to how we watch TV

"American Idol," the television sensation whose immense popularity has sparked cultural changes from the broadcast boardroom to the family living room, has pioneered a genre.

Or has it?

"This was absolutely nothing new," says Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

In fact, a broadcast talent show in which the audience voting to determine the winner predates television. The hugely popular "Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour," which started on radio in 1934, offered "a telephone call-in with a special exchange in Manhattan, or you could send a postcard," says Thompson.

That show eventually moved to the exciting world of television, picked up emcee Ted Mack, and became "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour," which dwindled in popularity but hung on until 1970.

And now, the stunning success that is "American Idol." Its two weekly shows dominate the time period, beloved by everyone from children to senior citizens.

And it continues to grow each season. Last season's opening nights drew 71 million viewers, while the finale attracted more than 74 million. That's not to mention the platinum albums and chart-topping singles produced by its alumni, or Kelly Clarkson's Grammys and Carrie Underwood's Country Music Awards.

This television juggernaut has affected everything from family TV time to an eruption of onscreen, viewer-decided talent programming.

Next week -- Jan. 16 -- another season begins.

>'Phones went wild'

To gauge the grassroots impact of "American Idol," look no farther than Debbie Bello, a voice coach who operates Bello Voice Studio in Orchard Park. Bello has taken small groups of her most talented students to auditions for the past four years. Eleven crammed into a van for Boston, but the circuit has taken them as far as Detroit. This year, Bello hints that one of her students in California may still be in the running to make the show, but she's close-mouthed on details.

Bello, who has taught voice for 18 years, has been tracking the "American Idol" effect since the end of Season 1, she says. That was when "the overflow just started. There's so much interest that I cannot even answer all the voicemails and e-mails I get."

Last season, when the show aired a brief clip of her giving a pep talk to her auditioning student 17-year-old Colton Rudloff of West Falls, she says "my phones went wild."

"It has completely turned everything around and made music just a wonderful thing," she says. "It has made even little kids want to be singers."

>Two shows in one

This incredible impact, both on television programming and on popular culture, is unexpected for a show that was rejected by several networks before Fox slotted it in as a summer replacement in June 2002. A spinoff of the British TV series "Pop Idol," the show must have looked a bit odd. Who wanted to hear a bunch of nobodies tackle -- and sometimes slaughter -- pop songs?

But "American Idol" had a secret weapon -- Simon Cowell.

"In the beginning, I think that show was made by Simon," says Thompson. "The original promos were Simon Cowell making really nasty comments, and they were really funny, and it was a hit right out of the gate," says Thompson. "I am about as interested in watching a bunch of young people sing pop songs as I am in having a root canal, but I saw those promos of Simon, and I thought, 'That looks funny.' "

The first shows of each season's "American Idol" appeal to people who want to laugh at the absurd applicants. The judges' comments on the good, the bad, the ugly and the "simply appalling" are the main entertainment.

"The first part, some of them are way off. You just turn the TV on and crack up hysterical," says Carmen Rivera, owner of Karma Salon on Elmwood Avenue. "The first part is supposed to make you laugh."

"I laugh a little bit" at the early tryout shows, says Donna Marie Saviola of Snyder, whose 23-year-old daughter, Danielle Calato, is a student of Bello's and has tried out for the show seven times. "Some of it is flat-out funny. But some of it is just crazy. I think there's a place for the bizarre stuff, but it's almost a mockery.

"I prefer the talent part of it," she says. In the early shows, "sometimes I think they bring people on just because they are so bizarre, and it's embarrassing to the talented singer who didn't make it that far."

She's right, of course. Exhibit 1, now a fading pop-culture icon: William Hung.

Rudloff says he would fast-forward through this whole section of the show if he could.

"In the beginning, a lot of people watch the show for the funny auditions, but I listen for the good voices," he says. "If I could skip all the bad people I would, because I just want to hear that inspirational voice to listen to."

The second part of the show begins when the contestants are winnowed down to the finalists -- mostly talented singers, with one or two appealing yet not-so-great contestants (Kevin Covais, I'm calling your name) thrown in for controversy.

By this point, even those who tuned in for the snark may find themselves hooked by the drama. Thompson says, "You're watching somebody, before your very eyes, go from total obscurity to super-stardom. That is always going to be exciting if it's done right, and they do it very well."

"I love to hear the singing of the talent part of the show," says Rivera, who says that in her salon, "we talk about 'American Idol' aaalllll the time." And everybody has a different opinion of who should win, based on the type of music they favor. "If you like rock, you like Chris Daughtry, if you like R&B, you're going to like Fantasia, if you like country, you're going to like Carrie Underwood."

>Making the sweater

Thompson is also impressed with the "ingenious way to do artist development" demonstrated on the show. "Instead of simply going to clubs and finding someone who can sing and developing them and trying to build up their name, here you do your artist development in front of the whole country."

But it's more than just artist development -- it's all about sales, from the glasses of Coke featured on the judges' table to the Ford commercials that the last few contestants star in.

"It's this incredibly brilliant sleight of hand," says Thompson. "You create a hit and a star for your record label, and on top of that, you make twice as much money with a television show about the creation. This would be the equivalent of, if you were someone who sold sweaters for a living, you could not only get $50 apiece for the sweaters that you made, but you could charge people $500 to watch you make the sweater."

One reason for avid audience involvement is that the most talented competitors don't always win. Tamyra Gray's ouster in Season 1 before Nikki McKibbin had the blogs and message boards boiling, and Chris Daughtry wasn't the only one left with his mouth hanging open when Katharine McPhee outpolled him in Season 5. The responsibility to keep the deserving singers -- or maybe just your favorite -- is set squarely on the viewers.

And that is another of the show's strengths -- viewers don't just passively watch it. They can interact with it on many levels that make them feel a sense of ownership.

"Not only is it impossible to avoid hearing someone in the office talking about 'American Idol,' now the water-cooler chats extend to the virtual world," wrote James Kiernan, vice president of MediaVest, a Manhattan media specialist company. " 'Idol' fans are among the most vocal across message boards, instant messaging and a long list of blogs."

The blogs range from official ones, such as Idolonfox.com, to the irreverent ones, such as televisionwithoutpity.com.

>Family TV night

But never mind the text message, the water cooler or even the blog -- another strength of the show is that parents can actually watch it and discuss it with their children.

"It is the premier family-friendly show on network TV, especially once you get past the nasty part at the beginning," says Thompson.

Danielle Calato, 23, of Snyder, who has tried out for the show, says "Idol" is the only television show she watches. She's usually joined by her brother, Joseph Calato, 14, and their mother. She says, "I don't really watch TV, so when 'Idol' comes on it's like, 'TV time!' "

"Sometimes we do the whole family thing," says her mother, Donna Marie Saviola. "If he's home, my husband [Robert Saviola] will watch with us too."
Calato's extended family also watches and some relatives phone her after shows with their opinions, she says. "Other family members, like aunts and uncles, all watch, and then they call and say, 'You could do that!' or sometimes they say, 'You'd fit right in! "

Donna Marie Saviola says during the finale of Season 2, she and her husband watched the show in Florida while visiting her mother. "My son called because he wanted Ruben Studdard and we wanted Clay [Aiken], and we got a phone message from him, 'Ha ha ha!' "

Rudloff says while he, his parents and his 20-year-old sister watch a few shows together -- "Lost" and "Ugly Betty" among them -- "this is one that I brought to the family, because I was really into it. I was like, 'We're watching the show!' Now they love it."

>The show's future

"American Idol" has spawned a raft of imitators, from "Dancing With the Stars," to "America's Got Talent," from "So You Think You Can Dance" to "America's Next Top Inventor." Most of these shows have have included studio judges and viewer voting.

But none has caught fire like "American Idol." In fact, Season 5 may have been its hottest yet, when Prince turned up to perform two songs.

"It was one of those moments where you go, 'Wow!' " says Thompson. 'Prince is not a guy who does a lot of TV appearances. He's a guy that you consider kind of a serious, self-conscious musician. And when he's popping up on 'American Idol,' you realize this is not the cheap goods that I think people used to see it as."

How can the show top itself? An original tune and guest-judge stint from Bob Dylan? A live reading by J.D. Salinger?

In an interview last month the New York Daily News, the show's executive producer, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, promises "a big event show sometime in the middle of the season." She refused to even hint at details.

How long can the show continue to grow in popularity?

As long as it continues offering viewers a change to see a star being born, says Thompson. "There's excitement to watching 'American Idol' because you realize you're seeing the making of someone who is going to win a Grammy or a Country Music Award," he says. "When you see the awards Kelly Clarkson has gotten, Carrie Underwood, even Clay Aiken, who was a runner-up -- every time 'American Idol' creates a star who really becomes a star, the value of that show goes up."

But the viewing public is fickle -- remember the rise and fall of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

The decline and fall will happen eventually, says Thompson. "If five years from now, we go two, three, four years in a row where 'American Idol' winners' records quit going platinum and they don't win any awards, then it becomes less exciting."

Until then, grab a spot on the couch and tune in. "American Idol" rules.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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