LOS ANGELES - Fox's two-hour special that resulted in Alabama's Taylor Hicks being crowned the fifth "American Idol" was a big hit among viewers, drawing an audience of 35.4 million people, Nielsen Media Research said.
During the last half hour of "Idol," where Hicks' victory over Katharine McPhee was announced, just under 43 million people were tuned in, Nielsen said.
That makes it the second most-watched "Idol" finale ever, behind only 2003's competition. Last year's contest won by Carrie Underwood was seen by 30.3 million.
ABC's two-hour "Lost" finale averaged 17.6 million viewers. But the numbers jumped after "Idol" went off the air: 19.3 million people were watching during the drama's final half-hour.
Hicks' reaction after winning the vote: "Stars do fall on Alabama."
The Birmingham, Ala., 29-year-old, who wooed viewers with his raw singing style, wild dance moves and an unlikely mop of gray hair, said he wanted to travel back home to his legions of "Soul Patrol" fans, whom he thanked onstage the moment he won.
Then, he added, he wants to record a "really good" album, "with soul."
"I'm heading to the studio as quickly as I can," he said. "But I'll take a few days off to clear my head."
And he would love to tour with younger R&B and rock artists such as John Legend and John Mayer, said Hicks, whose victory earned him a recording contract and a new car.
Hicks, who beat out the sultry brunette McPhee, 22, of Los Angeles, credited his win in part to "a love for music."
It also helped, he said, that he sang after McPhee did during Tuesday night's head-to-head competition.
The show's fifth and best-rated edition yet took a leap in stature Wednesday when Prince, Mary J. Blige and other big names performed during the finale. The series has given big boosts to the album sales of pop stars who have appeared on it.
Hicks, the latest in a string of Southern and Midwestern contestants to win the contest, leaned over in an emotional reaction when host Ryan Seacrest announced his victory.
"I was just telling myself, 'Don't fall to the floor. Don't let my knees buckle,'" he said backstage.
More than 63 million votes were cast, "more than any president in the history of our country has received," Seacrest said. Specific tallies for Hicks and McPhee were not immediately announced.
Fans picked the soulful sound and footloose moves of Hicks, who made his mark on Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" on Tuesday's show, although McPhee's well-trained voice was shown to perfection on the standard "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
After Wednesday's show, runner-up McPhee said she hadn't expected to win and didn't have any regrets.
"It would really just be silly to feel bad for me at this point. I got a record deal, a new car," she said backstage.
McPhee said she planned to take a week off to see friends in New York and "go somewhere tropical" before embarking on the "American Idol" tour with Hicks and the other finalists.
As for the future, she said she wanted to model her career after Julia Roberts, and eventually go into movies and back to her musical-theater roots.
Underwood opened the finale, joining Hicks and McPhee on "I Made It Through the Rain" and later soloing on "Don't Forget to Remember Me."
On Tuesday, Underwood won two trophies at the Academy of Country Music Awards, underscoring how much an "Idol" victory can mean. She was named top new female artist and won best single for "Jesus Take the Wheel."
Other pairings of contestants and stars on the "Idol" finale included Paris Bennett and Al Jarreau; McPhee and Meat Loaf; Chris Daughtry and Live; Elliott Yamin and Blige; Hicks and Toni Braxton, and the dozen finalists with Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick.
Prince was a surprise final performer, taking the stage for two songs, including "Satisfied" - and without an "Idol" contestant alongside.
Asked backstage if he had any advice for contestants, Meat Loaf replied: "If you want to do this, you're gonna go up and down, and up and down, and people are going to love you and hate you... Just stick with it," he said.
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