WASHINGTON — It’s time for the annual “American Idol” column, written this year with a heavy heart. Let’s not kid ourselves: Something’s not right.

“Idol” remains, by far, the most powerful force in television. The show is such a ratings behemoth that Fox, for the first time, is likely to finish the season as the nation’s most-watched network. Rupert Murdoch must be pleased that his plan for world domination is going so swimmingly.

Fox’s success comes with an asterisk, since all the broadcast networks have seen their ratings suffer: Viewers drifted away during the long writers’ strike and didn’t come back. CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” for example, is down by 19 percent. “Idol” is doing comparatively well but has seen its ratings slide by 7 percent. And there aren’t any writers to blame.

Granted, any of the other networks would love to be burdened with a “slumping” show that averages an astounding 28.7 million viewers. But once the needle starts pointing south, it’s hard to turn things around. This season might not mark the beginning of the end for “Idol,” but it certainly looks like the end of the beginning.

What’s the problem? Theories abound.

My own pet hypothesis is that viewers have found another reality show they prefer watching. I’m not talking about “Dancing With the Stars” or the utterly incomprehensible “Deal or No Deal,” I mean the race for president.

Our unfolding pageant of democracy has everything: vivid characters with compelling life stories, frequent opportunities to judge the candidates’ performance, do-or-die evenings when your favorite is in peril of being voted off the show.

Look, this isn’t such a stretch: The presidential race has been a ratings bonanza for the all-news cable networks, each of which tries to bill itself as an indispensable source of political coverage and opinion. It’s not unreasonable to posit that Americans are flocking to a televised competition where the stakes are a tad higher than those in “Idol” land.

A more conventional explanation would be general lassitude on the part of the evil geniuses who created “Idol” and set it loose upon the nation.

It’s axiomatic that the most important step in putting together any reality show is casting. This season, the gold-standard casting process that “Idol” has refined over the years went horribly wrong, producing a corps of finalists with better-than-usual singing talent, on average, but not much personality. “Average” is a disastrous concept for this show.

This season, it was easy to find contestants to root against, but hard to find anyone to root for. David Cook and David Archuleta may be the best remaining singers of this cohort, but does it really matter which one wins? Was either born to become an incandescent pop star?

At the moment, the most urgent reason to watch the show isn’t to see who sings well or gets voted off; it’s to see how out of it Paula Abdul appears to be on a given evening. Last week, in what was generally seen as one of the more surreal Paula Moments in the show’s history, she judged Jason Castro on both of his performances when in fact he had given only the first. After a moment of stunned silence, host Ryan Seacrest said she was “seeing the future” and tried to summon her back to generally accepted reality.

A mini-scandal ensued: Was “Idol” actually scripted in advance? Even the most ardent conspiracy theorists had to admit how unlikely it was that people smart enough to invent “American Idol” would be dumb enough to expect Paula to follow any kind of script. But I digress.

Probably the best explanation of why the show lacks sizzle this year is a simple one: exhaustion.

The producers keep loading new demands on the contestants. Every week, at this stage of the competition, each singer has to learn and choreograph two new songs for the Tuesday show, go into a studio and record full-length versions, learn and choreograph a kitschy medley performance for the Wednesday show and film a car commercial for one of the show’s sponsors. It’s a routine that would tax a seasoned performer.

If the “Idol” contestants sometimes appear to be sleepwalking, it’s because they are. Fox and the “Idol” brain trust can make money by the ton if they keep squeezing more all-but-unpaid work out of their young performers — but only until they’ve managed to squeeze the life out of the show.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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