The Amazing 'Idol’

America voted: American Idol is still the biggest game in town—by any standard. Yes, last week’s two-plus-hour finale was down from last year’s record-setting swan song between Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee. Regardless, it was still watched by a stunning 30.7 million people. In today’s dizzyingly fragmented landscape, where big-tent shows are increasingly valuable (and increasingly rare), American Idol is the gift that keeps on giving.

With 30-second spots going for a reported $1.3 million, the bloated—or jam-packed, depending on your level of tenacity—two-hour-and-nine-minute finale was anything but a disappointment for Fox and offers an object lesson in content demand and integrated marketing.

While the industry is gnashing its teeth over “guaranteed engagement” and preparing to ask advertisers to pay for Nielsen’s live-plus-three ratings (maybe) or live-plus-seven (yeah, right), Idol is time-shift-proof. Viewers may head to the fridge for an ice-cold cola (Coke, for sure) during one of the numerous commercial breaks, but they’ve already been inoculated by sponsors during the show.

Since Survivor, there have been dire predictions that viewers would rebel at blatant product placement. But the synergy between sponsor and creative content has not been greeted with indignation or outrage from an audience concerned about the corruption of art by commerce.

And unscripted television, with its plainly evident product placement, is simply updating a convention from TV’s Golden Age, when sponsors weren’t shy at all. The Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle opened every week with singers dressed as Texaco service-station attendants. John Cameron Swayze gave us the news on the Camel News Caravan on NBC.

Fortunately, they’re not hawking anything that causes cancer on American Idol.

Indeed, the show’s wholesomeness—coupled with its central tenant, a truly democratic coronation—combine to make it a cross-demographic juggernaut.

The disparate selection of artists who appeared on the finale underscores Idol’s broad appeal: Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Green Day, Gwen Stefani.

A singing competition that harks to the days of big-tent variety shows; it’s the most popular destination on a medium decried as a vast wasteland of depravity and degradation.

And the second most-popular show on TV last week? Another family-friendly throwback: ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.

So while the finger-waggers in Washington are busy plotting even more onerous content regulations and dreaming of astronomical fines to protect the populace from dastardly TV programmers, more than 30 million people are watching gracious, sweet-tempered teenager Jordin Sparks become queen for a lot longer than a day.