Most TV shows are under the gun to produce ratings. American Idol’s mandate is to mint viewers and record buyers.
The franchise’s latest challenge begins Tuesday with the release of third-season winner Fantasia’s first single, “I Believe.”
And for once, nattering nabob of negativity Simon Cowell is optimistic.
“There aren’t many other artists…I’d rather have on my label than Fantasia,” Cowell said backstage at last month’s Idol season finale.
Early on, the now singularly named Fantasia (formerly Fantasia Barrino) is living up to her Idol booster’s boasts.
Reviews for “I Believe,” also featuring covers of “Chain of Fools” and “Summertime,” are good; sales on Amazon.com are strong (it was ranked number three at one point Tuesday afternoon).
But the real story–for both Fantasia and American Idol–will be told on next week’s charts.
Will the 19-year-old North Carolinan top Idol sales champ Clay Aiken, the second-season runner-up whose inaugural single sold nearly 400,000 in its first week? Will she hold her own against fellow Idol winners Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard, who moved 236,000 and 286,000 singles, respectively, in their chart debuts?
In short: Will American Idol produce another American hitmaker?
Cowell, at least, thinks the livelihood of the franchise depends on the answer being yes.
“I was praying Fantasia would win because without huge record sales at the end there’s no desire the following year to want to win this competition,” Cowell said.
To date, Idol hasn’t had trouble with the “huge record sales” thing.
“So far, this is a golden franchise and everything has worked perfectly,” said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
Clarkson, Studdard and Aiken followed up their hit singles with platinum-selling albums. Second-season second runner-up Kimberly Locke has a Top 10 single (“8th World Wonder”) on the current Billboard singles chart, as does Aiken (“Solitaire”).
If records by other Idol artists have disappeared–see: Justin Guarini, R.J. Helton, Tamyra Gray (106th and sinking on the Billboard album chart after three weeks)–then the public wasn’t necessarily clamoring for those artists. None was a champ, or Clay Aiken.
Likewise, none was William Hung, the tone-deaf Idol reject from this past season whose album of tone-deaf dance numbers, Inspiration, has logged 10 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, and generated more buzz, if not sales, than American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics, the compilation album featuring this year’s 10 finalists.
While Hung’s insta-celebrity has been a great thing for the earnest college undergrad, it hasn’t necessarily been a great thing for the franchise.
Thompson said Idol is, by its own billing, required to create a “huge superstar.” Note he didn’t say a one-hit, no-note wonder.
The burden then falls on Fantasia, signed to a $1 million deal with RCA Records, to fulfill the TV show’s mission.
“If one of these winners had a ‘crash and burn,’ and didn’t do very well, it would do a lot of damage to the franchise,” Thompson said.
Even if ratings for the Fantasia-crowning Idol finale were down 16 percent from 2003’s Studdard-Aiken sendoff, few are expecting a “crash and burn” from Fantasia, with Cowell outright predicting she’ll be “the best yet.”
In the New York Daily News, pop critic Jim Farber concurred, writing that with “I Believe,” Fantasia has already distinguished herself from “every other grinning hack chosen by the vast American Idol audience so far.”
Fantasia and her fellow Idol Top 10ers, including runner-up Diana DeGarmo, due out with her own debut single (“Dreams”) next week, hit the road July 14 for a 51-date, 49-city tour–the largest reach yet for the live show.
There are no stats on ticket sales yet, but the teen market, presumably the prime audience for the Idol gang, is thought to be up for grabs following last week’s cancellation of the Britney Spears summer tour.
Overall, said Gary Bongiovanni editor-in-chief of the concert industry trade magazine Pollstar, the Idol tours are hard to get early reads on, in terms of ticket-buyer interest.
“You’re talking about people playing arenas who had no name recognition six months ago,” Bongiovanni said.
In the end, said one Idol expert who begs to differ with Cowell, it won’t be the TV show’s fault if the no-names remain no-names after the summer and beyond.
“The show is not responsible for their careers–unfortunately,” judge Randy Jackson said at last month finale blowout. “We’ve handed the baby off. The baby’s been birthed. Now go out there and have a good time.”
That’s the plan, anyway.
Joal Ryan – E!Online