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'American Idol': And now there are two

American Idol
From left: Nikki McKibbin, 23, Justin Guarini, 23, and Kelly Clarkson, 20.  


By Simon Duffy
CNN

(CNN) -- So the TV heavyweight championship of the summer is set. Kelly Clarkson, 20, and Justin Guarini, 23, will do battle next Tuesday in a two-hour prime time fight to see who will be voted the "American Idol."

On Wednesday night Nikki McKibbin, 23, fell at the next to last hurdle as she was eliminated by viewer votes after Tuesday night's three-way penultimate round.

Nikki left with words of encouragement from each of the judges. Praise for staying true to her rock style and even "bad guy" judge Simon Cowell telling her to focus on the achievement of coming third out of a field of 10,000 -- while characteristically pointing out that he didn't feel she deserved to make the final.

For Tuesday's show, each contestant chose one song to perform, then sang a second song selected by the judges. McKibbin led off the show with Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen," and followed up by "Black Velvet," an '80s hit for Alannah Myles. Guarini sang Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." Clarkson sang Celine Dion's "Think Twice" and closed out the show with "Without You," a No. 1 hit for Harry Nilsson. (Read the grades of the latest performances on EW.com.)

People were watching, too. Before "Idol" was even over, hundreds of fans had running (and often nasty) commentaries on the contestant's performances and appearance in the show's message boards.

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  •  Official 'American Idol' Web site

"American Idol" has become the hit of the summer -- such a hit that it's fulfilling an irony of the television business: In an industry where name recognition is everything, the highest form of a success is when people stop using the name of your show.

The water-cooler buzz after the Wednesday night episodes, in which contestants are voted off the show, has been reaching aircraft-engine levels. The comments don't even need a reference: "Did you watch it?" "What did you think?" "It was outrageous what they did to her!"

When people in the office, or the bus or the street, are talking about your show without even having to even tell one another its name, there is no doubt, you are a hit.

The show that needs no introduction is now in its final two weeks, having built into a phenomenon over the course of the summer. A European reality/game show import on the heels of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," "Big Brother" and "Weakest Link," "American Idol" offers the champ a shot at the great teen-dream showbiz jackpot, claiming to identify the next huge pop idol to sweep Britney and 'N Sync from bedroom walls across the country.

'Three dramas in one'

It's a formula as old as the talent contest itself, a mainstay of television from Ted Mack to Chuck Barris.

But this is more than just "Star Search" with breast implants, said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"This is to 'Star Search' what modern quantum physics is to Newtonian gravitational equations," he said. "It's big, so much more sophisticated and so much more conscious of how you gather an audience."

" 'Star Search' was an old-fashioned 'Ted Mack Amateur Hour' kind of a talent show. This is three dramas in one: the drama of the judges, the drama of the old becoming a rock star [and] grabbing the brass ring, the drama of the whole vote in, and all the rest of it," said Thompson.

The series started with a nationwide talent search in which three judges -- '80s singer Paula Abdul and record producers Cowell and Randy Jackson -- watched thousands of acts. (Click here to find out more about the judges)

Long before the judges named their final 30 competitors, Cowell -- imported from "Pop Idol," the British version of the show -- became "American Idol's" first star, with his delightfully nasty comments regarding contestants' singing prowess. He's also the record mogul offering the prize contract to the show's winner.

"It was fun to watch these bad people get trashed, and Simon was really good at it," said Thompson. "Which was why he became so well-known so quickly."

Tempering their comments

American Idol
Judges Simon Cowell, left, and Paula Abdul on an episode of "American Idol."  

But as less talented performers were weeded out, the judges' comments grew less caustic. "It was all right," was about the meanest thing Cowell managed Tuesday night.

Jackson, who has not been as harsh during the show's run, did call one performance "very karaoke."

Thompson said that part of the appeal of the show is that "the recipe keeps changing, which is actually what other TV shows have never really accomplished."

"You've got 'Survivor,' where you just keep plowing on from the 16 people to the final. There is no change. The same is true of a drama or a sitcom," he said.

As the series progressed, the competitors moved into a mansion and the audience was introduced to them as individuals in classic reality-TV manner. They were good-looking men and women, most in their early 20s and from large cities, who generally listed overblown ballads as their favorite songs.

As the field of contestants was reduced to 10, the decision on whom to drop moved to a viewers' telephone poll, and the judges were relegated to an advisory role. (Click here to see the final 10 contestants)

'Suddenly the red herring is dropped'

But it's the fickleness of the polling decisions that's really helped the show become a Nielsen winner. (The last few episodes have been among the weekly top five most popular shows among the key demographic of adults 18-49.) Last week's abrupt dismissal of Tamyra Gray, one of the favorites, was apparently a shock to viewers and judges alike.

Susan Campbell of Atlanta, Georgia, said she was so disgusted by the decision that she was boycotting the final two weeks.

"It would have been fun ... a race between Kelly and Tamyra ... with Justin as the X factor," she said. "But now ... it's all but done."

Campbell, and other Tamyra Gray fans, may not be upset with the show anymore. Eonline.com reports that 19 Entertainment, one of the show's producers, has signed on to manage Gray.

The latest twist will inject more drama into the show, Thompson said.

"When all of a sudden the one that the judges had always liked the best, the one who was most consistently good, who for all intents and purposes looked like she should have won this ... suddenly the red herring is dropped. She is gone and it throws the whole thing up for grabs.

"That makes for great drama," he said. "It also continues to renew the freshness of what could be a really boring show."

Whether the "American Idol" winner will have a successful recording career is an open question. The recording charts are littered with the 45-rpm carcasses of manufactured successes, from South Philly Elvis wannabes to studio-created dance groups that had a brief flash of fame before flickering back into anonymity.

But even more murky -- particularly to Fox -- is whether the show will have staying power, or whether it will be a one-hit wonder itself.

Thompson believes, at least in the short term, there will be more "idols" for Americans to moon over.

"Clearly, as successful as this was, they are going to want to do it over and over again," he said. "They are gearing up to turn out American Idols like we turn out Chevys from Detroit."