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Cowell departure another jolt to weakening 'Idol'

Published:Wednesday | January 20, 2010 | 12:00 AM


With Simon Cowell's days numbered and Paula Abdul already gone, this season is shaping up to be the end of an era for the nation's most popular show, the Fox Network's 'American Idol.'

However, when it comes to living up to its title and creating superstar acts that capture the imagination of millions, the power of 'Idol' has been ebbing for years. While it produced mutli-platinum sensations in its earlier days, starting with Kelly Clarkson and ending with Carrie Underwood, recent 'Idol' winners or runners-up have not had similar chart success.

Kris Allen, last year's champion, has sold about 200,000 copies of his debut album. And while his 'Idol' runner-up, Adam Lambert, proved to be more popular and controversial, even his debut has not stayed at the top of the charts for long.

"When you start thinking about American Idol as a place that feeds the music business, it's not as much as people think it is," said Howard Benson, who produced the first two CDs for 'Idol' finalist Chris Daughtry's multi-platinum band, Daughtry. "It's fallen off."

Of course, "fallen off" is relative when you are talking about a show that has been the undisputed ratings champion since it debuted in 2003. It has produced millions and millions in album sales, Grammy Awards, even an Oscar winner in Jennifer Hudson, who is also a Grammy winner and successful recording artiste. Even the also-rans of 'Idol' have managed to parlay career success after an 'Idol' stint.

"It is by far still the most watched show on TV - even more watched in some years than the Academy Awards and the Grammys or anything like that," says Ann Donahue, senior editor at Billboard magazine. "But actually translating those people who watch the show into buying albums remains difficult."

Like the rest of the music industry, 'Idol' is battling a decline in music sales. But even taking that into account, the drop-off in sales and buzz for 'Idol' winners is telling. When Clarkson became the show's first winner in 2003, her album, Thankful, debuted at number one, sold a healthy 297,000 copies and included hits like A Moment Like This and Miss Independent. It went on to sell 2.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The next year, champ Ruben Studdard sold 1.8 million and had the hit Sorry 2004. Clay Aiken, that year's runner-up, did even better, selling 2.7 million copies of his CD, Measure of a Man.

Studdard was followed by Fantasia, whose Free Yourself also sold 1.8 million and had the R&B hit Free Yourself. Underwood established herself as the show's most successful winner - her country debut sold nearly seven million copies with major crossover hits like Jesus Take the Wheel and Before He Cheats.

Self-titled albums

The next winner, Taylor Hicks, was a major disappointment, selling 700,000 copies of his self-titled debut. Jordin Sparks followed with a platinum self-titled debut CD and hit songs, while David Cook had a platinum CD, also self-titled but without the hits.

This year, 'Idol' champ Kris Allen released his self-titled CD to little fanfare. It did not debut at the top of the charts and now sits at number 91 on Billboard's Hot 200 albums chart, and has not generated a top hit thus far.

In a recent interview, Underwood said being on Idol is not a guarantee of success, even if a performer has a hit debut.

"You look at people who came before me too, like some of them you haven't really heard from in a while. And I don't think it's just since me. I think you've got to have a lot of luck on your side, too. Just because people vote for you doesn't mean they'll go out and buy your album, and especially now," she said.

"You know, you look at the music industry and all the changes it's gone through in the past five years, I don't know, it's just maybe in a different way they are successful, but they're just not selling the numbers because nobody's selling the numbers they did five, six years ago."