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.

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