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Finding the last 'American Idol'

The singing show that started it all looks for its Kelly Clarkson "bookend."

"American Idol," the reality show that 14 years ago kicked off a tidal wave of singing competitions that have dominated network television — and introduced America to Simon Cowell — is having its last hurrah.

After failing to match up in the ratings to its younger competitors and facing lagging interest from viewers, Fox announced last year that it was shuttering its signature reality show, but not before one more search for a star. Its 15th and final season — which the producers have cleverly repackaged as something of a victory lap for a TV giant rather than the end of canceled program — kicks off with a two-night, four-hour premiere airing Wednesday and Thursday.

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But what are we hoping to get out of one more season of "Idol"? And how is the show positioning itself in the crowded reality television landscape it helped create? What can the winner — or even the viewers — really expect at this point, when we live in a world where the victors of even the most popular singing competition on TV — "The Voice" — struggle for any actual success? Often, it's been better to almost make it than to make it. Just ask runners-up Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert or Jennifer Hudson (who didn't even reach the finals).

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There's good reason that host Ryan Seacrest cannily refers to the final season's champion as "the bookend to Kelly Clarkson," the very first "American Idol" winner. Clarkson has gone on to enjoy the kind of career the show's producers hoped every winner would, but she's the exception, not the rule. At one point, an adorably awkward hopeful and "Idol" super-fan, Michelle Marie, is tasked with naming all 14 previous winners in order, and even she has trouble. You won't be faulted if some of the names and faces don't ring a bell right away.

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So how is "American Idol" setting itself apart? If the first few rounds of auditions are any indication, it's by setting its sights on the heartland, with an emphasis on country and twang that would make Blake Shelton blush. It's no accident that the new season kicks off with auditions in cities like Atlanta, Denver and Little Rock, Arkansas and that so many hopefuls walk in carrying guitars. Whether or not the folksy focus will translate into improved ratings for the last hurrah, though, is still up in the air.

Here's our take on where the show's past winners stand on a scale from superstar to stranger:

1. Kelly Clarkson
2. Carrie Underwood
3. Fantasia Barrino
​4. Jordin Sparks
5. Ruben Studdard
6. Phillip Phillips
7. Taylor Hicks
8. Scotty McCreery
9. Nick Fradiani
10. Kris Allen
11. Lee DeWyze
12. David Cook
13. Candice Glover
14. Caleb Johnson

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter:@nedrick

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