Watching American Idol is so much more satisfying on a television. So thank your lucky stars that that’s where you got to watch it.

That fact that Idol is better on TV became abundantly clear last night, as I was sitting in the audience of the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, where the show’s performance finale was shot and telecast live to the East Coast and the Midwest in front of 7,000 screaming fans. My seat was in the very back row, all but assuring that I had to watch what was playing out just a few hundred feet in front of me on the jumbo projection screens plastered on either side of the stage. Think of the situation as something like how you might experience a Britney Spears concert in a huge arena today and — even though she’d be on stage right in front of you — you’d still end up watching most everything on the screens provided. Sure, it was something to simply exist in the same space as Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips, as they tried to convince America to vote for them one final time, but just like, say, the Grammys or the Oscars, American Idol is a show that’s made to be watched from the comfort of your own home.

But being there did afford me the luxury of making some nice observations, mostly about the temperature of the crowd, which doesn’t always come off exactly the same way on television. (The producers of the show typically try to convince you that everyone in the audience is crazy obsessed with every contestant on stage.) First off, from the moment I walked in the theater about a half hour before showtime, it was clear that the din around American Idol seemed to have been dampened a bit from seasons past. Eleven seasons in, that is not surprising — fatigue has certainly been setting in with this show for a while now. The crowd assembled — mostly parents and their very small children — was surely excited, to be sure, but also totally subdued. Where was the drama? The excitement? The I-love-this-contestant t-shirts? There were few posters, far fewer than in past finales, and there weren’t any crazy tributes to any one contestant. Last year, I remember there were huge, blow-up balloons spelling S-C-O-T-T-Y in the audience, amongst other things. This year, there wasn’t much of such extravagance. But said balloons did appear on finale results night, so maybe all the nuttiness will arrive at tonight’s airing of the grand finale? Who knows.

The difference of last night, too, has to do with the fact that where Idol normally plays out — at CBS Television City, near The Grove, in Los Angeles — is a much more intimate space. It’s funny to say that a huge studio that seats around 600 is intimate, but compared to the Nokia, nearly any smaller space would be intimate. What was the same as CBS, however, was the warm-up guy: Cory was there, enlisted to get the crowd pumped up. And truly, he was able to add some electricity into the air, just minutes before the show went live, luckily enough. Cory appeared to the tune of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” which seemed to get the crowd moving. “If you’re ready to party, say yeah!” he yelled at the crowd, while dragging various members of the crowd up to the stage — no doubt a dream come true for them — to shake their booties. “Let’s get this party started the right way — center stage!”

At one point, Cory asked the crowd: “Do we have any Phillip Phillips fans in the house?” The expected screams came at a respectable level, with jumping bodies and arms in the air. And when he did the same for Jessica Sanchez, a similar level of screams came for her — a good sign! Before the show, at least, it was clear that the crowd was pretty divided in their support for the two finalists — this would be a battle worth watching.

But that evenly split sentiment changed as the night went on. During the first round of the night, the crowd seemed still pretty split, even though the judges declared that Jessica’s “I Have Nothing” was better than Phillip’s “Stand By Me.” After that, that’s when things shifted, clearly — at least with the live audience’s temperature — as Phillip’s “Movin’ Out” garnered way more screams and general excitement from the crowd than Jessica’s “The Prayer.” One audience member near me postulated that it must be Jessica’s mother — or at least someone, anyone, much older than the young contestant’s 16 years — that was picking her songs for her, as evidenced by the slow, rather unexciting nature of “The Prayer.”

I’m sure this came across on television, as well, but as the night wore on, the din around Phillip only got bigger and bigger — he surely came out on top for the night, at least to a viewer who was there inside the theater. So much so that by the time Jessica gave her final performance of the night — her potential first single “Change Nothing” — the crowd seemed totally bored by her. At the end of the soaring, diva ballad, few people were on their feet, and truly, the applause was tepid at best. The judges didn’t get to their feet. It felt like something of a cheesy, platitudinous dud there in the Nokia Theatre.

And the vibe couldn’t have been more different when Phillip offered up his potential first single, “Home.” Granted, it, too, was very cheesy in that we’re-trying-to-push-all-your-buttons way. But compared to Jessica’s effort — which just hung in the air with no one grabbing onto it — the crowd embraced Phillip’s guitar-laced tune with vigor and excitement. It felt anthemic. It felt like it filled the theater. It felt like something you’d hear on a commercial. It felt like something you’d want to hear live again. And it felt like maybe it also could have been off fun.’s recent album. I think those are all good things, and truly, they bode well for him winning the show, as long as that all, also, came across on the television screen.

From inside the theater, at least, the winner was Phillip Phillips. Who America will vote for, based on what they saw on television? Guess we’ll find that out very soon…

Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky

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