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MU Professor says American Idol Resonates in Culture that Prizes Authenticity

May 22, 2008

Story Contact:  Emily Smith, (573) 882-3346,
Lee Wilkins, Home: (573) 446-2307,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – A record-breaking 97.5 million votes were cast for last night’s American Idol showdown. The show averaged 26 million viewers per episode, crushing the ratings of its closest rival. Idol winner David Cook and runner-up David Archuleta became leaders for today's popular culture in a season that tested the long-standing franchise.

Lee Wilkins, an expert on media ethics and professor of radio-television journalism in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said the show is a success because it promotes individuality.

“This is a culture that’s celebrity saturated and American Idol is a celebrity making machine. It’s successful at that because the culture itself is receptive and because many of the contestants, not just the winners, have enormous appeal. People watch because the show plays on our notions of authenticity and individuality—this resonates in a culture that prizes these things,” Wilkins said. “It also harkens back to those Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies where some ‘kids’ would put on ‘shows’ in their backyards and finish with a Hollywood musical. All of us know people who are talented, and some of us have talent and we would like to succeed with it.”

Wilkins said that in terms of the music industry, American Idol is incredibly cost effective.

“With CD sales continuing to plummet, Idol helps revitalize the record industry’s bottom line. With an already established audience, contestants also can be expected to draw an audience when they go on tour, an endeavor that is producing more profit for recording artists and those who own their contracts than CD sales.”

Wilkins’ research focuses are media ethics and risk communication, and she has published extensively in both fields. Wilkins began her university career 27 years ago, after working as a professional newspaper reporter and editor. She received the William T. Kemper Award for Teaching Excellence in 1998, the highest teaching award on the University of Missouri campus. A year earlier the MU School of Journalism gave Wilkins its highest teaching award, the O.O. McIntyre Distinguished Professorship. She has taught ethics as a visiting faculty member at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. She has a doctorate in political science and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.