100 & Single: The Erratic Chart Fortunes Of TV-Crowned Idols, From Kelly To Scotty

Scotty McCreery—winner of the 10th edition of American Idol, and owner of the new No. 1 title on Billboard's album chart, Clear as Day—sets a handful of chart records this week that certainly sound impressive.

As Billboard reports, McCreery is the first country act to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with a debut studio album. At 18 years old, McCreery is also the youngest man to open at the top of the chart with a debut release; he beat former B2K singer Omarion, who, at age 20, made his solo debut atop the chart in 2005.

Of course, neither of these records would have been possible without the imprimatur of Idol, however talented McCreery might be. It's not like he's burning up the airwaves or iTunes—his highest-charting single to date, "I Love You This Big," hasn't gone any higher on the Billboard Hot 100 than No. 11, or No. 15 on Hot Country Songs. McCreery's No. 1 debut is all about the magical promotional juggernaut that is network television, particularly its top-rated show.

But even in the Idol context, McCreery's out-of-the-box chart performance looks mighty. Clear as Day is the first debut album by an Idol finalist to top the Billboard 200 since 2005, when that year's fourth-place finalist, Chris Daughtry, rose to the top of the chart with Daughtry.

Even more remarkable, it's the first No. 1 debut album by an Idol winner since late 2003. That's when second-season victor Ruben Studdard topped the list with Soulful. Other than Studdard, season-one winner Kelly Clarkson (her debut Thankful rang the bell in early 2003) and now McCreery, all of the Idol winners have debuted and peaked somewhere below No. 1. (A couple of winners, including Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, have come back since 2003 with chart-topping albums, but those were second albums or later, which didn't benefit directly from an immediate Idol push.)

After an eight-year shutout by Idol winners from the Billboard 200's penthouse, who should get credit for McCreery's success? Should it be new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, who helped give the show's ratings an improbable boost in its first post-Simon Cowell season? Is it the winsome McCreery, the show's first non-rock winner in four seasons? Was it the millions of Idol voters, who finally picked a winner whose album they'd actually want to buy?

Nah. I'd give the win to Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Universal's biggest label group. The guy knows how to do something really basic: pick a good release date.

That skill—paying attention to the music industry's release schedule and choosing a week where the competitive bar wasn't too high—turned out to be critical, because it probably made the difference between yet another Idol also-ran release and McCreery's bell-ringing success. If the album had dropped just a week earlier—or, say, next month sometime, during the holiday-buying sweepstakes—it likely wouldn't be a chart-topper.

One number I haven't mentioned yet in the rundown of McCreery's achievements is the sales total that put him on top this week: 197,000. That's a very respectable sum for a Billboard 200 chart-topper. But it's not remarkable. Last week's No. 1, up-and-coming MC J. Cole's Cole World: The Sideline Story, rang the bell with 217,000 in sales; McCreery would have fallen short of that total. The week before, McCreery would have edged out chart-topper Tony Bennett's Duets II (179,000 in sales), but only by about 10%—and the octogenarian didn't have the biggest show on television boosting him.

Speaking of that show, looking just at Idol finalists, McCreery's debut sales week is fine, maybe even stellar compared with recent history. But it's not at all exceptional historically. Even after the Season 10 Idol "comeback," his sales total—No. 1 debut or not—is still toward the low end of the pack.

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