Has the American Idol phenomenon finally reached its tipping point?

Though the ratings for last night’s enervating two-hour finale, which ended in a surprise victory for coffeehouse crooner (and hick shithole resident) Kris Allen, would be stupendous for any other show, they represented a significant drop-off from last year and the worst for any Idol finale since 2004. Down from 32 million in 2008, 28.8 million people tuned into the show, which featured musical appearances by such contemporary superstars as zombie Rod Stewart, KISS, the remaining members of Queen, and Cyndi Lauper, as well as cameos by a self-censoring will.i.am, other castoffs from this season’s hopefuls, and a surprise appearance by an enhanced Bikini Girl. Who could say no to this 128-minute wheel-spinning extravaganza? It would appear 3.2 million people more than last year could say it.

Despite donning a bikini herself on stage last night, the scapegoat appears to be Kara Dioguardi, the songwriter brought on this season as the fourth judge and the co-author of its universally reviled inspirational single “No Boundaries.” Quite apart from Dioguardi’s dubious merits in the role, the extra judge (and inept producing) has led to consistent time overruns and a distracting shift in focus away from the performers. No word yet on whether her one-year contract will be renewed for next season, but she seems to be a sacrificial lamb.

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Another note: Simon Cowell, who’s been jetting weekly across the Atlantic for a pair of British reality shows (Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor), has talked about the possibility of leaving after his contract expires in 2010. Lately, he’s been setting the terms of a tough negotiating, threatening to go if American Idol were ever to be knocked off its six-year ratings perch. Though far from scientific, a recent AOL poll sites an astonishing 49% of viewers who vacate along with him, so the bottom could theoretically drop out quickly. Fingers crossed.

More revelations from a Reuters story here.