MTV Video Music Awards

'Idol' Finale Draws Millions

Kelly Clarkson wasn't the only participant in "American Idol: The Search for a Superstar" that greeted yesterday (Sept. 5) with bleary-eyed triumph. "The whole rush of the last three months caught up

Kelly Clarkson wasn't the only participant in "American Idol: The Search for a Superstar" that greeted yesterday (Sept. 5) with bleary-eyed triumph. "The whole rush of the last three months caught up with me," said Mike Darnell, executive VP alternative programming at the Fox television network. "I haven't slept for three nights."

At the end of Wednesday's two-hour "Idol" finale, a tearful Clarkson was crowned victor of the 12-week talent hunt and handed a $1 million recording contract amid a blizzard of confetti. But another clear winner is Fox and specials guru Darnell, who saw a reality series imported from the U.K. become this summer's TV sensation.

The ratings for the finale could have given any network executive insomnia. According to figures from Nielsen Media Research, the program delivered a spectacular 10.7 rating/30 share in the key adults 18-49 demographic -- the network's best-ever demo share performance for non-sports programming.

The "Idol" finale's average of 22.8 million total viewers was Fox's second-highest non-sports number (after a block of "The Simpsons" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" on Dec. 19, 1991, which drew 23 million). Fox estimates that more than 40 million viewers watched at least part of the broadcast. The finale drew best of all among young viewers, devouring a third of the teen audience.

"These [numbers] are way above my expectations," Darnell said. "Not above my wildest dreams but certainly above my realistic expectations... We are thrilled."

Another winner is British-based creator/executive producer Simon Fuller, who hit upon a way to revive the stodgy talent-show format by adding an interactive element that let viewers vote for their favorites. Fuller is developing a feature film starring Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini, with a studio partner to be announced soon, he said.

While "America is the toughest market of the world to crack," Fuller said in an interview, the interactive element of "Idol" appealed to Americans' democratic sensibilities. "Everyone wants their say," he said.

"Idol" also has launched what will likely become a wave of talent-competition shows. Beyond "American Idol 2," which Fox has planned for early next year, CBS recently ordered a nine-episode update of the '80s staple "Star Search" for midseason, and other networks are believed to be circling similar projects.

All of which suits the sleepless Darnell fine. Declining to isolate any larger cultural reason for the talent-show trend, he said audiences are simply seeking good entertainment. "When something is a television phenomenon -- and I think we can safely say that about 'Idol' -- you are going to get imitators," he said.