Underwood, fellow alumni no 'Idol' Grammy threat

'American Idol' alumni aren't just taking on the Grammy Awards -- they're taking over, period.

Sunday's Grammy Awards ceremony will no doubt have Carrie Underwood on the edge of her seat. The winner of Season 4 of Fox's megahit reality series "American Idol" is up for two prizes: best new artist and female country vocal performance. Additionally, her breakthrough hit, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," is up for song of the year and best country song.

Underwood, whose debut album "Some Hearts" already has sold more than 3 million copies, is part of a widening group of "American Idol" winners who have proven they have the chops to garner music's most highly valued prizes.

"'American Idol' exists in a time when reality and behind-the-scenes television has become its own genre," says former Maverick Records A&R executive Scott Austin, who runs artist development company Authentik Music Group. "('Idol') has created a weekly event where fans of the show are a part of the discovery process."

Those fans have followed their favorites with enthusiasm and open wallets: Kelly Clarkson, the show's first winner, walked away with two Grammys in 2006, besting Fiona Apple, Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt. The debut album "Daughtry," from Season 5's fourth placer Chris Daughtry, has sold more than 1 million units since its November release, according to Nielsen SoundScan; both he and Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks entered the Billboard 200 at No. 2. (Daughtry's album hit No. 1 in January.)

The list goes on: Oscar nominee Jennifer Hudson, who finished in seventh place in Season 3, took home a Golden Globe last month for her role in Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" and actually won the role of Effie White over Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino. Barrino scored four Grammy nominations herself in 2006, while Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard also received one nom at the 2004 Grammys.

This year's Grammy ceremony is even taking its cues from the series. In conjunction with Yahoo! Music, the Grammys are holding an online contest inviting voters to select a finalist from a field of 12 to perform with Justin Timberlake at this year's show.

While talent shows have long been a staple of TV programming -- both a young Christina Aguilera and an early incarnation of Destiny's Child, then known as Girlz Tyme, were featured on the long-running series "Star Search" -- it's only recently that the format has begun to spawn legitimate, top-selling artists. Apart from "Idol," the MTV/ABC collaboration "Making the Band 3" launched the career of prefab girl group Danity Kane, whose album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 this past summer, and CBS' "Rock Star: INXS" gained traction in its first season when the Australian group took to the airwaves to find a replacement for late frontman Michael Hutchence.

But "Idol" is its own juggernaut, thanks to a loyal fanbase of viewers who vote on the winners over a series of weeks. Tension mounts as performances and dismissals are aired live, and the show has scored its highest ratings to date this season, kicking off with more than 37 million viewers.

Independent A&R consultant Molly Kaye says that what has helped "Idol" alumni is canny production and well-selected songs. "Most of the biggest-selling ('Idol') records are very listenable, well-made, all-around records," she says.

As album sales continue to spiral downward, any artist who can sell records is considered a good business decision -- and just how he or she is discovered makes little difference. "Any medium that renews public interest in new music and reminds the pop audience of just how important new artists are is a good thing," Austin says.

Plus, industry experts say, "Idol" is helping shape a new generation of fervent music buyers. "'Idol' is a gateway that introduces an audience to music in a fun and exciting way," says Martin Kirkup, manager of such artists as k.d. lang and Jamie Cullum. "Once you're really passionate about music -- any music -- then you'll explore further as your taste develops."