It's been a while since the "American Idol" announcement made on finale night was really a surprise. Maybe when Ruben beat Clay -- that infamous decision is still argued among the diehard Claymates out there. But it was pretty clear in years past that Fantasia was going to defeat Diana, Carrie and her little bit country would beat Bo and his little bit rock and roll, and that Taylor Hicks was riding a wave of goofy, grey-haired personality to beat Katharine McPhee.
This year was no different. Almost everyone who cared to hazard a guess was picking young Jordin Sparks, she of the powerhouse vocals, to defeat Seattle beatboxer Blake Lewis. And almost everyone was right: At just 17, Sparks was crowned the 2007 champion of this reality show that still captivates the nation.
"Idol" has been criticized for everything from a lack of clarity about the voting system to the stupid, apparently scripted jokes between host Ryan Seacrest and judge Simon Cowell. Some viewers claim that Ryan is too rude, and others say Simon is a big ol' meanie, apparently wanting all the judges to all play the Paula role and deliver nothing but meaningless platitudes. Viewership is down this sixth season, sliding to levels the show last saw in seasons three and four.
And of course, every season, fans complain that "because Melinda/Chris Daughtry/Stephanie/etc got kicked off so early," or "because Sanjaya/Hayley/Kevin Covais stayed so long," that they'll never watch again. And maybe they don't, but the show is going to have to come a long way before it really feels those losses. The show still pulls in everyone from senior citizens to young preteens with their parents It's still the Mount Everest of American TV shows, so unavoidable a colossus that other networks plan their TV seasons to shield their important shows from the "Idol" timeslot.
A couple seasons ago, "Idol" was consistently under fire for weird happenings with the voting. MSNBC.com regularly received mail from viewers who claimed they called in to vote for one singer and heard a recorded message thanking them for voting for someone different. The show's editors got lazy, too, and a couple of times, the wrong phone numbers appeared on the screen. Shrieks that "the fix is in!" were heard from coast to coast. Viewers still grumble about how ridiculous it is that "Idol" isn't more open about the vote totals -- how close the show is from week to week, and how many calls the winner actually wins by.
"Idol" is unlikely to change. For one thing, if it revealed those numbers, and Blake was trailing Jordin last week by some huge number of votes, you're fooling yourself if you think it wouldn't affect the next week's votes. Blake's fans would be galvanized and Jordin's fans might get complacent, and this season's outcome might have been forever altered.
But most of all, "Idol" won't change because it doesn't have to. When you're that far above the other shows in the ratings race, you can get lazy if you want. When the ratings numbers come in for Jordin's coronation, they'll be unbeatable. As was she.
On "Survivor," every season the contestants remind themselves constantly that it's just a game. "Idol" is a game, too -- part singing competition, part popularity contest, part magic and luck and random chance. Like many "Survivors" in the past, Jordin hung back a little, letting Melinda and LaKisha, not to mention Sanjaya, take much of the early attention. But she never was less than stellar, and she played the game with all the charm and vocal chops of a woman twice her age. Future "Idols" can learn a lot from the young girl with the great big voice.