'American Idol' Bounces Back with Smart Shake-Ups, Young Talent

Steven Tyler's face looks like it's about to melt off, J. Lo's cheesing really hard and Randy Jackson looks completely disconnected from it all. In Lil Wayne's words: What a f*cking family picture! The flick was taken onstage during the 'American Idol' panel at the FOX Broadcasting Company portion of the 2011 Winter TCA press tour at the Langham Hotel on Jan. 11 in Pasadena, Calif.

Two teen-age country charmers -- one overtly emotional, one ridiculously calm -- head into tonight's "American Idol" finale, closing out a year in which everything went right for everyone associated with the show.

After slipping last year from its pedestal as America's favorite show, "Idol" quickly removed questions about its survival, addressing issues with statements that ended in exclamation points. Best ratings! Most votes! No. 1 show! Career revival! Interesting contestants! Season 10 had it all.

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Most importantly, the show was discussed and debated for its merits, not the diminished quality of the judges or singers. It wound up with a top five of potential hitmakers, singers who showed up for the competition and specialists aiming to work a specific genre into the winners' circle.

Scotty McCreery, 17, and Lauren Alaina, 16, prove the theory that Southerners like to vote early and often for their own. But they've also demonstrated that nuanced development over the course of a season makes a difference between a champ and runner-up. Lauren has come a lot further than Scotty, who could win the thing simply because he's stuck to his comfort zone. But there's already anticipation in the air for McCreery's debut album, just as there is for Casey Abrams and Pia Toscano. Alaina will require more studio grooming -- not that she does not deserve to be in the finals.

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The last three weeks have seen the voted-off singers not just shed a tear of disappointment, but counter with an almost-defiant declaration of "mission accomplished!" (Another one of those exclamation points). Jacob Lusk departed with a forward-looking statement about the role he wants to have in bringing back the R&B style of Luther Vandross. James Durbin, rightly or wrongly, decided he had done something no other singer had done on "Idol" as he once again shouted, "Give metal a chance." And Haley Reinhart proudly beamed, "I rocked it out," before closing her run with Elton John's "Benny and the Jets"; the next day, s he told reporters she intends to make a blues-rock album.

Contrast that to a year ago, when two guitar-strummers made it to the final round, sounding slightly outdated as they pitched their music to a crew that works behind the scenes to create stars. None of those judges could help Lee DeWyze or Crystal Bowersox: Neither of them was about to go in a polished pop direction, the specialty of three members of the judging team.

Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Jimmy Iovine come from different areas of the musical spectrum for this year's slate, but they offer insight that the former teams could not -- namely, how to be a star. Their advice and commentary was about presentation, confidence and eliminating fear. It was far less about song selection and the worn-out phrase "make it your own," with Lopez and Tyler appearing to have a handle on the damage that can be done when non-constructive criticism is delivered fresh on the heels of an artistic presentation.

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Looking back over the last few shows with the knowledge of who was eliminated, the group's performance of the Turtles' hit "Happy Together" proves oddly prescient. Only McCreery and Alaina sang the tune with focus. The others, all of whom struggled with pitch on the song, try to hard to instill themselves into a single line while McCreery and Alaina smoothly roll through the pop-rock classic, in turn effortlessly making a statement about who they are as singers.

America has responded. The May 11 and 12 shows were No. 1 in total viewers in the coveted demographic of adults 18-49 -- the Wednesday show had 9.3 million viewers in that age bracket and 8.5 million tuned in Thursday. "Idol" moved its finale week up a day to insure that both shows would be included in the period used to set advertising rates, which ends Wednesday, now the finale for "Idol."

In February, one of the other periods key in setting ad rates, Fox won the month in ratings by 114 percent over CBS. The top 12 girls episode was up 10 percent over the year prior in total viewers; the first live show this year brought in 25.3 million total viewers.

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One other ratings quirk about "American Idol": It appears, based one of Nielsen's various tracking systems, that the show is most watched live and not on DVR. On Nielsen ratings chart that measure the day of broadcast plus viewership within the next seven days, "Idol" has a minimal bump -- 11 percent -- when compared with shows such as "Fringe," "Blue Bloods" and "Gossip Girls" that see their ratings rise by as much as 60 percent.

It has not reclaimed the 30.6 million viewers who tuned in to watch in 2006, when Taylor Hicks, Katherine McPhee, Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin and Paris Bennett landed in the final five. Like this year's field of five, those singers were genre-specific, but each performed styles that appeal to older listeners -- blues, jazz, Broadway, soul and early '90s hard rock. They were seasoned by bar bands and back-up singing mothers; it was a stretch to think they would go against form once a record deal was in front of them.

This year is about youth, and about singers with an idea of where they want to go but no plan on how to get there. Lauren Alaina had a beautiful quote on the show recently, noting that she tries to sing "what girls my age would want." Scotty's song-selection choice was more random, though he has never strayed far from classic country baritone.

Universal Music Group could have their hands full in the coming year, as they decide which acts to sign and which to let go. As appealing for the televised show as stories of, "it's either this or I get a real job" can be, it does not work that way in the music industry. Iovine and his crew have a flock of singers who appear eager and hungry, and are looking for the sort of direction that his producers have provided this season.

The big question, once we get past Wednesday, concerns Jennifer Lopez and whether she will sign another deal. She was only contracted for a single season and she must believe the year could not have gone better -- a year ago, she was singing a love song to shoes that flopped; this year, she's People's most beautiful woman and has been handed a platform to premiere her new music. Tyler, too, got a chance to roll out his memoir and a new single.

Next year will be a different landscape. "Idol" will undoubtedly be compared to Cowell's return to television on "The X Factor" this fall and NBC's"The Voice," which will be running at the same time. More adjustments are likely to be made -- but as "Idol" learned this year, change can be a very good thing.