Variety employs a number of extremely talented people who are fascinated by the annual ritual known as "American Idol," and thank God for that, because I am soooooooooo not one of them. Indeed, about the only way I can get through an episode of the show — which, as a TV critic, I feel obligated to watch — is by TiVo-ing it and fast-forwarding through the padding and flab, which can easily boil a usual hour (minus commercials) down to about 17 minutes.

This sounds like heresy, of course, mostly because newspapers have recognized that "Idol" is one of the few unqualified smashes left on television and are thus determined to latch onto its water-cooler-sensation coattails. If the Los Angeles Times covered local government with the same vigor it brings to the "Idol-dome," the city's crumbling infrastructure might be in better shape, and more people would be able to spell "Villaraigosa."

This symbiotic relationship leads to inordinate coverage of all things "Idol," puffing up the show's cultural importance. Lisa de MorJudge4aes at the Washington Post slyly dubs her recaps "We watch 'Idol' so you don't have to," the point being that there's more peer pressure surrounding this show than almost
anything else in the media sphere, requiring at least a modicum of fluency in its ups and downs. If this were a Harry Potter movie, it would be titled "American Idol and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy."

Kudos to Fox for managing the franchise so effectively, but at this point the hype machinery has taken on a life of its own — and simultaneously empowered host Ryan Seacrest to expand his media empire, unleashing dreck like NBC's "Momma's Boys" across the broadcast spectrum.

As for me, I'll keep tabs on the program because I have to, but my heart's with the 80-plus percent of Americans that honestly couldn't give a damn who becomes the next you-know-what and would just as soon that you wake them when the whole thing's over.

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