By Brian Mansfield, USA TODAY
Whether Candice Glover or Kree Harrison emerges victorious from Thursday's American Idol finale (Fox, 8 p.m. ET/PT), she'll have one substantial advantage over the show's previous winners.
Rather than wait until November, as most Idols have done, this year's champ will release her album this summer. As soon as the finale's over, iTunes will begin accepting pre-orders.
Ideally, rushing the recording and release of the album will help the winning singer retain some of the momentum built by her near-constant TV presence since January.
She'll need all the help she can get, because Idol appears to no longer be the launching pad it once was.
For the second year in a row, Idol's audience has dropped more than 20%. For Season 12, the show is down 22%, both in viewers (14.9 million vs. 19 million in Season 11) and advertiser-coveted young adults. Idol, TV's top non-sports program as recently as last season, is averaging 10 million fewer viewers than it did in Season 10 and less than half the more than 30 million it drew at its peak.
Fewer people than ever know the top two singers, and many of those who do will be inclined to write them off, lumping them together with all the other singers coming from all the other TV competitions.
The next American Idol's gender works to her advantage: Though male Idol winners have outnumbered female winners 7-4, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood are, by far, the two biggest stars the show has produced.
Even if she doesn't win, country singer Harrison has a promising road ahead. The well-liked former demo singer probably has had more music industry backing than any other contestant in the show's history, with Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves, Underwood and others voicing support. Her bluesy, tasteful style, reminiscent of Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless, occupies a niche that's empty in country. If Nashville can persuade radio to buy into Harrison, she should be golden.
Glover's path isn't quite as clear. Recent song choices suggest that 19 Entertainment and Universal Music Group see her as an act that fits somewhere between Mary J. Blige, Adele and British newcomer Emeli Sande, a pretty diverse group. But Glover has excelled at singing so many types of songs on Idol that she hasn't needed to define herself beyond her voice.
Once a singer gets past Idol, though, success depends less on singing chops and more on the records made and the image developed.
One lesson that Universal may have learned last year is that a good song can make all the difference. Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips' Home has lived a life far beyond its association with Idol, having been used in the 2012 Olympics and in many films, commercials and TV shows. The song has sold almost 4.5 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it the biggest-selling single by any Idol act ever, topping Clarkson's recent hit Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You), which sold 4.3 million.
Glover's I Am Beautiful or Harrison's All Cried Out would rank among Idol's best coronation singles, though neither sounds like a slam-dunk smash in the singer's preferred format. Should one capture the public's imagination the way Home did, either singer could become an act worthy of the Idol name.
Contributing: Bill Keveney