How to Fix American Idol

Once again, a fan-favorite has failed to win the ultimate prize on American Idol.  Crystal Bowersox was the heir apparent to the singing competition crown since the beginning of the season, and remained a frontrunner week after week, but Lee DeWyze was the surprise winner during the finale episode.  This has become a familiar outcome during many of American Idol's nine seasons.  Only two winners, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, have really lived up to the hype by becoming blockbuster recording superstars.  Other winners, like Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, and last year's Kris Allen, have had varying degrees of success, but nowhere near the album-selling clout displayed by Kelly and Carrie.  Those winners have often been outshined by runners up, some of whom were eliminated in rounds much earlier than the finals.

Many fans and critics have bemoaned American Idol for being a popularity contest and not a true process of finding the best singer in the country.  But the premise of the show would seem to rightfully be all about popularity as judges and the viewing public select the performer they like best, and whose eventual music they would want to purchase.  A competition to select a pop music recording artist should be about popularity, no?  Yet the evidence seems to indicate that the process is flawed.  Except for Clarkson and Underwood, winning American Idol is not a guarantee of Billboard chart success. 

The show itself, despite its critics, continues to generate great ratings and has already produced a string of hit recording artists, but the catch is that most of them did not win the actual competition.  Contestants like Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry, Clay Aiken, Katharine McPhee, and Jennifer Hudson, just to name a few, may not have won it all on the show, but their success has so far surpassed some of the other American Idol winners over the years.

As American Idol approaches its tenth season at a crucial crossroad in which its most familiar judge is leaving the show, what changes will it face to continue its ratings dominance?  It managed to survive the departure of Paula Abdul, but can it stay on top without the personality of Simon Cowell?  Most importantly, can it fix the one glaring flaw in its design -- the fact that the "best singer" with the best potential for connecting with the music-buying public does not usually win? 

Popularity measured by dial-in telephone and text-message votes does not seem to equal popularity in music sales.  So my solution to the perceived problem is to have the final round be judged by what really matters -- dollars.  Set up the finale to be a challenge to determine who can sell the most music.  Have each of the finalists select and record their own song, have it up on iTunes, and then after a few days, whichever song has sold the most, voila, there is your winner.

Of course, this is loaded with the potential for corruption and scandal, but I still think something like that is the best solution and would be a better measurement of a performer's earning potential, rather than the current system in which you have people "voting" who have no real intention of ever buying that person's album.