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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Southern power sets tone on 'Idol'

By Mike Hughes
Gannett News Service

Taylor Hicks

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7 tonight; final results, 7 p.m. tomorrow



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Katharine McPhee

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By now, "American Idol" might be expected to be unchanging and unflinching.

It's in its fifth season and wildly successful. Each week, it tops the Nielsen ratings. Its big finish tonight and tomorrow on Fox, with Taylor Hicks facing Katharine McPhee is expected to be huge.

This season has pointed to the power of Southern contestants.

That goes back to the hasty decision to hold auditions in Greensboro, N.C., a modest-sized city (223,000) in a modest-sized state.

"We went to Greensboro because of the (flooding) in New Orleans. ... We went there at the very last minute," producer Ken Warwick says.

"I thought, 'Where on the Earth am I?' ... It certainly was not a major city."

The result: "We had more talent and more fun and more honest emotion there than we've ever had anywhere," Warwick says. "And it's kind of affected where we're going to go next year."

He hasn't picked the spots yet, but the numbers seem to support a Southern emphasis: In the final pairings for the first four years eight contestants six were Southerners, one was an Oklahoma farm girl and one guy (Justin Guarini) was from Pennsylvania but was born in Georgia.

This could reflect the Southern emphasis on performance, from gospel choirs to beauty pageants.

Warwick prefers to view it as a matter of opportunity:

"If they're up North and they're talented, then they tend to sort of go professional," he says. "They go to New York, they come to L.A. ... and they get jobs. In the South, maybe there's a little less opportunity, so there's more talent ... floating around."

Whatever the reason, it has affected the show's dynamics.

"American Idol" was molded by Englishmen including Warwick and producers Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Cowell who predicted there would be colorful feuds. Instead, they've often had small-town kids, clinging to each other for support.

Even after being ousted, they sounded cheery. "I am an American idol to myself," said Paris Bennett, who finished No. 5.

This isn't the hard-edged show the Englishmen imagined. It's a show that Frank Capra and John-Boy Walton would like.