As the 'American Idol' turns
Accusations, refutations, malfunctions -- and ratings
(CNN) -- Let's see: There was the contestant who accused Paula Abdul of helping him, professionally and otherwise. There was the phone line debacle. There was the promising contestant who pulled out of the show and was rumored to have cut his own deal. There was the Web site that tried to push the contestant it deemed least qualified, earning the enmity of many fans.
There were the usual back stories of indiscretions, arrests and bad behavior in contestants' pasts, and complaints of fraud and fixing.
If "American Idol" were willing to tolerate Grateful Dead songs, a line from "Truckin' " could summarize the hit show's fourth season: "What a long, strange trip it's been."
And yet "Idol," which is wrapping up its fourth season Wednesday, has thrived under the spotlight. The show's two editions rank second and third in this season's ratings, just behind "CSI" and ahead of "Desperate Housewives," "Survivor" and "Everybody Loves Raymond."
Diana DeGarmo, last season's runner-up, knows that publicity -- whether good or bad -- is the secret of the show.
"It's a TV show before it's anything. I think sometimes people need to remember that," DeGarmo told The Associated Press in early May. "They have to have something that gets them good ratings."
Abdul at the center
Not that "Idol" hasn't sweated a little bit. After the phone-line snafu and ensuing revote in March -- the show had initially aired incorrect vote-in phone numbers for three contestants -- some partisans screamed foul, though the show was quick to acknowledge its error.
Also in March, Mario Vazquez -- who had been a favorite of "Idol" fans -- unexpectedly quit the show. Soon after, his publicist had to shoot down claims that he was trying to escape his contract with "Idol" producer Simon Fuller's 19 Entertainment. (Fuller had his own business dealings this season, selling 19 to a company headed by concert and entertainment mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman for $200 million in stock and cash. Fuller will maintain control of his management firm.)
The accusations of Corey Clark, a 2003 contestant of the show, were a little harder to shrug off.
Clark said that Abdul, one of the show's judges, gave him performance tips and engaged him on a short-lived affair. His charges became the centerpiece of an ABC "Primetime Live" segment in early May; Clark also has a book to peddle.
Abdul reacted angrily to the claims, saying, "All my life, I have been taught to take the high road, and never to dignify salacious or false accusations. And I have been taught never, never to lie. Not only do I never lie, I never respond to lies, no matter how vicious, no matter how hurtful."
An Abdul representative was sharper, calling Clark "an admitted liar and opportunist who engages in unlawful activities."
Abdul also raised eyebrows when she admitted a longtime battle with chronic pain after being accused of being on drugs by some "Idol" message-board posters.
"I'm not addicted to pills of any kind," she told People magazine in a cover story.
The posts, she said, had hurt: "One said I was on drugs. Another described me as acting spaced out. Then someone else criticized me for being animated. They wrote, 'Look at Paula dancing up there with the contestants. Only someone on drugs would do that.' It was so hideous and mean," she told the magazine.
Then some wiseacres at Votefortheworst.com tried to convince people to support Scott Savol, generally ranked towards the bottom of "Idol" hopefuls. Their plan failed; Savol was voted off in early May.
Now the controversies, if not quite forgotten, have been placed on the back burner in favor of one question: Who's the next 'Idol' going to be, Bo or Carrie?
Bice vs. Underwood
Until Tuesday's performances, Bo Bice, the 29-year-old from Helena, Alabama, was considered the front-runner. Though he goes against the "Idol" grain -- he's a long-haired rocker who doesn't immerse himself in Mariah Carey-style vocal acrobatics or P. Diddy-style threads -- he's won a following with his performances of the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post" and his stage presence. (He has benefited from "Idol" raising the maximum age by four years; in previous seasons, he wouldn't have qualified for the show.)
Carrie Underwood, the 22-year-old pride of Checotah, Oklahoma, is more "Idol's" style. Wholesomely pretty, small-town raised, her métier is ballads and upbeat country songs.
The "Idol" crew -- (left to right) Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest and Paula Abdul -- have had an eventful season.
As "Idol's" final twosome, they both have a head start for prospective singing careers -- though long-term success is by no means assured.
Last year's final two, winner Fantasia Barrino and runner-up Diana DeGarmo, have used "Idol" as a launching pad for albums and concert tours; the previous season's finalists, winner Ruben Studdard and second-place finisher Clay Aiken, each had best-selling debut albums.
First season champ Kelly Clarkson has lasted longer than many critics thought she would, hitting the top 10 recently with the Max Martin-produced song "Since U Been Gone." However, her co-finalist, Justin Guarini, has struggled, having been dropped by his label after his first album sold poorly. (For information on "Idol" notables, see this gallery.)
Still, just the shot at the gold ring seems to be enough. "Idol" auditions have attracted tens of thousands of people, all hoping for a few seconds on the air -- even if that time is as embarrassing as the off-key William Hung's attempt at "She Bangs." After all, Hung got a record deal out of the appearance -- not to mention marriage proposals and a bobblehead doll.
Bo and Carrie, you may be next.