Scotty McCreery can thank a fourth judge for clearing his path to becoming the latest "American Idol" - one who didn't have to critique his singing.
A Los Angeles judge approved a minor's contract establishing financial protections both McCreery and Lauren Alaina on Monday, two days before fan votes gave the country crooner the show's top award. The draft contracts give the first-place winner - McCreery - at least $250,000 in advances for winning the show and recording the first album.
The 17-year-old will earn tens of thousands of dollars more for granting "Idol" partners likeness, merchandise and endorsement rights, and will also receive royalties on any music he releases.
Runner-up Alaina is also set to receive a major payday; the contact approved by Superior Court Judge Marjorie Steinberg calls for the 16-year-old to receive $87,500 for finishing second. The amount would be doubled if Alaina records an album.
Despite the payouts that would be the dream of many high-schoolers, the newly-minted stars are receiving less than another "Idol" phenom who needed her mom's permission to perform. Season Six winner Jordin Sparks received a contract that guaranteed her a $180,000 advance after the show and another $180,000 after delivering her first album.
Also, in some past seasons, winners were paid a minimum of $100,000 for merchandise rights, records show. Draft merchandise agreements for McCreery and Alaina give him $50,000 and her $40,000.
Their face-off this week was the first time in "Idol" history that both top contestants were under the age of 18. An estimated 29.3 million people tuned in, which The Nielsen Co. said Thursday was 21 percent more than last year's finale.
"It felt like a dream," McCreery said backstage in his dressing room after Wednesday's show. "It still hasn't sunk in yet, and I don't think it will for a while. I'm on top of the world right now."
Judges must sign off on entertainment contracts for minors and ensure that appropriate financial safeguards remain in place until the teens reach adulthood.
Numerous other underage contestants have been featured on the show and advanced to its late stages, including Season Seven runner-up David Archuleta. Draft contracts filed in his minor's contract petition indicated the payout for winning "Idol" that year was $360,000 total if an album was recorded, and Archuleta was slated to receive an advance of $155,000 for placing second - double that once he produced an album.
The contracts can be extended multiple times to allow "Idol" partners to release multiple albums, and the advance payouts increase each time the contract is renewed.
The teens' "Idol" contracts and recording deals require the show's producers and partners to place 15 percent of their gross earnings in a trust account that cannot be touched until after they turn 18 years old.
Neither McCreery nor Alaina was present Monday when Steinberg approved their "Idol" agreements.
Their advances will be placed in a Coogan Account, which is named after Jackie Coogan, an early-Hollywood child actor who was forced to sue his mother and former manager to recoup his earnings.