5 Better Uses For 'American Idol' Vote Cash

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- American Idol may have been the nation's favorite show for much of the past decade, but it's also one of its biggest wastes of expendable income.

Since 2004, Idol has been the No. 1 show in America and still pulled in an average of nearly 30 million viewers last year after peaking at more than 37 million in 2007. Nielsen says Idol is helping Fox ( NWS) to an early lead in February sweeps, with Fox drawing an average of 23 million viewers in prime time, or more than three times the audience of No. 2 CBS ( CBS). But the franchise itself is falling on some unusually hard times.

If the American Idol judges haven't been keeping your attention since Simon Cowell left, and the onstage talent isn't thrilling you, it might be worth it to think about what you could buy by forgoing your text-messaged votes.

In the early stages of this season, Idol is averaging 25.6 million viewers on Wednesdays and 22.4 million viewers on Thursdays. That's a big fall from a Tuesday average of 28.9 million viewers and Wednesday's 27.5 during the same period last year, and just one of the signs that the still formidable show is losing steam a decade after it first aired.

As polarizing as were show founder and former judge Simon Cowell and '80s pop star turned judging softie Paula Abdul, the audience at least felt something about them. Newcomer Jennifer Lopez fulfilled her destiny as the next Abdul, but little else, while new judge and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler needed some network-conjured controversy and a contestant named Muck just to remind people he was there. Meanwhile, last season's winner Lee DeWyze's debut album Live It Up sold fewer than 150,000 copies to date, about half the sales of Season 8 winner Kris Allen's self-titled debut a year before and nearly a 10th of Season 7 winner David Cook's first-album sales. This is what's supposed to get people to sacrifice their "standard messaging rates" once the semifinals start?

That AT&T-sponsored fan text voting may not be beyond reproach, but it's the closest Idol fans come to investing in the franchise until the winner and more-popular runner-up's albums are released. Nielsen measured Idol participation back in 2008 and determined that the average fan voted via text message 38 times. With AT&T ( T) and its biggest competitor Verizon's ( VZ) texting rates at 20 cents per message, that's $7.60. Stretch that out across 14 episodes of voting, and you're looking at $106.40 in texts alone for the season if you're not hooked into a text plan.

With the show's ratings flagging and its judges and winners falling from Cowell/Carrie Underwood-fueled favor, TheStreet suggests five better ways to spend that $106.40. Let J-Lo, Tyler and Randy Jackson earn their paychecks this season while you make a judge's save on these items and services:

5. Putting a dent in the grocery bill
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' most recent consumer expenditures report, the average American spends $117.94 a week on food. Only $67 of that is for food at home, which means Idol text spending could cover grocery expenses for a week and a half. If that spender is being weaned off the show, however, the odds are pretty high they've developed a taste for frivolity. In that case, those texting fees could go toward paying the $51.30 a week the average American spends on eating out -- which would cover restaurants and date nights for just over two weeks.

4. Doubling up on the iPhone
Love your AT&T service but hate seeing it used as a pawn in Fox's vicious ratings game and Apple's ( AAPL) move to Verizon for more market share? Well, now you can extend your longest digit at three corporate titans simultaneously by shifting your spending away from Idol texts to the perfectly fine iPhone 3GS models AT&T is offering for $49 a pop. It costs Fox some of its precious voter, costs Verizon some of the users it was expecting and costs Apple about $150 per device in unit price while giving you a phone Consumer Reports still likes better than the AT&T iPhone 4. Way to totally eviscerate the telecom juggernauts Cowell-style. It didn't even cost you a withering remark.

3. Filling the tank a few times
The average price for gas in the U.S. is up to $3.14 a gallon, which is more than 50 cents higher than it was a year ago and the most Americans have paid at the pump since October 2008. That makes it extremely difficult to pass up the nearly 34 gallons texting cash could buy. That's enough to fill up your average Ford ( F) Fusion twice, or to get 1,700 miles out of a Toyota ( T) Prius.

2. Keeping the lights on
That more than $106 you're blowing to get some kid a record contract could be keeping the spotlight on you and your family for weeks at a time. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average monthly electric bill is $104.52 -- well within that Idol budget. If you're lucky enough to watch crestfallen contestants being eliminated from a home in Utah or New Mexico, where that monthly bill is less than $67, that money can stretch into the next month. If you're a Ryan Seacrest backer in Baltimore, however, consider your $106 a down payment on Maryland's worst-in-the-nation $154 monthly bill.

1. Cranking up the heat
What's the use of passing the winter days watching Idol if you have to do so under six blankets while busting up old furniture for firewood? According to the Census Bureau's American Housing Study, the average American pays $133 a month for oil heat. Natural gas users pay slightly less at $73 a month. Neither would balk at an extra $106 once the temps drop below freezing and the always-amusing Idol auditions yield to the same old songs and painfully slow elimination process of the voting rounds.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.