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Smooth Operators

Melinda? Blake? Sanjaya?! We connect with all eight singers still standing in what is shaping up to be the most unpredictable ''American Idol'' season ever. Who will win? And do the contestants even care?

American Idol | WRONG NUMBERS? The season 6 Idol ratings are down a bit from last year — are the finalists not connecting with the fans?
Image credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY ART STREIBER
WRONG NUMBERS? The season 6 Idol ratings are down a bit from last year — are the finalists not connecting with the fans?

Melinda? Blake? Sanjaya?! Who will win ''Idol''?

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Maya Rosenberg. She may be only 10 years old and tiny, but this tyke from Philadelphia is the world's biggest Phil Stacey fan. On this Wednesday evening in early April, as she sits in the American Idol studio in Los Angeles, she's mere moments away from seeing her chrome-domed military-dad obsession in the flesh. (The main reason she's such a Phil-istine, by the way? ''I love his baby!'')

As the show starts, Maya is only slightly more composed than that now-famous Jan Brady clone who left a puddle of tears under her seat last month. The lights go down, and Idol host Ryan Seacrest delivers the opening tease, ending with his signature salvo: ''THIS... is American Idol.'' It's simply too much for Maya to take. ''I love when he does that!'' she squeals.

She's not alone: Five years after its 2002 premiere, Idol's still got the magic. Fox's slickly produced TV talent show has evolved from Star Search rip-off to bona fide pop-star factory whose winners have gone platinum (Ruben Studdard), hit Broadway (Fantasia Barrino), and even won music's highest honor: a Grammy (Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have two each). And it just keeps producing. ''The show is longer, there's more people in the audience, there's bigger guests,'' says executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz, referring to some of the big-name mentors that have tutored the season 6 contestants (Diana Ross, Gwen Stefani, Tony Bennett, Jennifer Lopez). And on April 24 and 25, the show will test its ability as a fund-raiser when it gathers an impressive lineup (including Clarkson, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, and... Borat?) for ''Idol Gives Back,'' a charity special to support relief programs in the U.S. and Africa. ''We're still going to have fun,'' says executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, ''but at the same time we've got to remind people that children are dying every three seconds around the world, and 50 cents actually saves a life.''

Yet this season has also proved that Idol isn't invincible. Though it still tops the Nielsens with an average of 32 million viewers, ratings for the top 12 rounds are down 7 percent from last year. Producers fault everything from the weather to college basketball to the earlier onset of daylight saving time. Or are the finalists to blame? Many Idol fans have targeted the talent level, wondering whether the likes of Haley Scarnato can compete with previous standouts like Clarkson and Underwood. ''We're doing as well as we are doing with not a great cast at the moment, to be honest with you,'' says judge Simon Cowell. ''They're not the best bunch of kids we've ever had.'' He may have a point: You know there's a problem when the most glowing compliment guest mentor Tony Bennett can muster about the contestants is ''They're all very competent... '' Even the typically wimpy Paula Abdul has grown some claws this season. ''I just can't say that they're really good if they're not,'' she explains. ''I just can't anymore.''

NEXT PAGE: Simon says: ''We suffer from Jennifer Hudson- and Chris Daughtry-itis... there's part of me thinking, [contestants] genuinely couldn't care less what we've got to say.''

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