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Just when I thought American Idol's last season might be the beginning of the end, the show surprised with its biggest, strongest debut ever this past week. Last season, American Idol failed to give us anything inventive or new in the way it selects its potential new Idol–deadly in the entertainment business–but still: it thrives....

Was this the result of peppering the weekly shows with great headliners like Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Andrea Bocelli, Dionne Warwick, Prince and Mary J. Blige? Were fans tuning in to root for their favorite Idols-in-waiting? Or, were they looking forward to the latest cat fights among judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson? One could argue about the entertainment value of all three, after all....
Reuters recently reported that according to Nielsen Media Research, AI averaged more than 30 million viewers last season. Furthermore: Ad Age reported that AI generated more than $500 million in sponsorship revenue, supposedly setting the brand's value at a staggering $2.5 billion. Not only that: a reported 570 million votes poured in via phone and text messaging during last season's finale.
When you stop and think about the fact that 300 million people live in the U.S., you quickly come to the realization that lots of passionate souls voted multiple times. It's also just plain amazing. I mean, how many things can you think of that would mobilize people to this degree of responsiveness? About anything?
Now this made me ponder about AI's next move. How could the show's producers top the 2006 season? Or, at least, how could they maintain the level of success they've already achieved?
Let's face it: It's going to be pretty hard to keep growing at the phenomenal rate the show enjoyed over the past couple of years. In fact, some high-profile people associated with AI have openly mused about whether or not the show was going to plateau the last couple of seasons. And in a Today Show interview this past Tuesday morning, show host Ryan Seacrest said basically the same thing.
AI's response? How about a songwriting contest? The general idea: amateur songwriters will be encouraged to submit demos to the AI web site for review. AI's producers and judges will select a dozen finalists from among the entries. These songs will apparently be performed as the show's new season progresses and the audience will be able to vote for the winner.
The winning song will then be performed by the winning new Idol. An unknown song by an unknown writer, performed by an unknown hot new singer... hmmm. As of the writing of this post, all of the details of the song contest haven't been finalized yet by AI's producers. Regardless, this might be the additional jolt the show needs to stay fresh and exciting for viewers. Rather than a newly-crowned Idol singing someone else's hit song that may/may not be the best fit for his or her vocal abilities, range and style, this would create an opportunity for a bona fide new star to have a bona fide first hit along with that spanking new recording contract.
And that could be breath of fresh air for all of AI's fans.

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Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc. (www.designforceinc.com), a leading brand-design consultancy to consumer product companies (phone: 856-810-2277). Ted is also a regular contributor to the MarketingProfs blog, the Daily Fix.