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Misjudging the art of judging

Not all opinions are created equal

As they say, everyone has an opinion. But not all those insights are created equal.

Back in 2007, yours truly anointed Simon Cowell “America’s critic in chief.” The thought at the time was with the “Siskel & Ebert” team over and Richard Roeper holding down the film-criticism fort with rotating guests, the tart Brit had emerged as a rare voice of tough but fair analysis in a showbiz landscape that in broadcast circles, anyway, often seemed split into two camps — sycophants and snipers.

Yet if Cowell became a household name thanks to “American Idol,” his moves since launching its near-twin “The X Factor” in the U.S. suggest neither he nor Fox entirely understood what made him stand out. In the process, the whole concept of “judging” has suffered, driven by the faulty assumption that celebrity status is the only tool required to assess the performances of others.

The proliferation of such competition programs has resulted in an escalating arms race to land marquee names and (in the case of the music shows) pop divas, which has become as unnecessarily expensive as it is absurd. If Cowell represented a tonic to Paula Abdul’s cheerleading banality, to paraphrase “The Magnificent Seven,” at times it looks as if only the Paulas have won.

The latest example will be on display this week, with Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj — already promoted to “feud” status via a leaked TMZ video — joining “Idol’s” judging ranks, as the program returns yet again with new arbiters.

Now, Carey and Minaj might very well have more to say than they demonstrated during the recent Television Critics Assn. tour, but adding them to the roster of pop luminaries moonlighting in this fashion merely reinforces a sense of churn and hunger for short-term ratings bumps. In this climate, it’s hard to imagine anyone having the audacity to cast the equivalent of Cowell way back in 2001 — before everyone knew his name — in such a high-profile showcase.

Admittedly, in the bigger scheme of things it’s always arbitrary whose views are deemed to matter. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. would be a much smaller blip on the media’s radar if showbiz hadn’t collectively decided to embrace them, and NBC hadn’t recognized the potential in turning the Golden Globe Awards into a splashy broadcast special in the ’90s, despite the org’s somewhat checkered past.

In many respects, today’s celebrity judges owe a sizable debt to the sporting world, where former players and coaches are invariably prime candidates to move into the broadcast booth. Although there, at least, there is a greater level of specialization in discussing defensive formations or whether teams benefit from a bye week, as opposed to deciding whether a singer sounds “pitchy” or “flat.”

Still, as sports’ appetite to fill time has grown, ESPN has notably widened its net, featuring more print journalists in talking-head roles. The sports titan is clearly eager to add voices with strong points of view, even if many of them have the kind of faces perhaps better suited to radio.

It’s worth noting, too, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were plucked from relative obscurity to deliver their “thumbs up” appraisals without being telegenic in the traditional sense. The ability to articulate criticism and colorfully banter and debate made the pair celebrities, not the other way around.

There’s a popular colloquialism that asks, “What gives you the right to judge?” But we’re all judges, in our own way; the only question is whether those verdicts are delivered in a public forum or the privacy of our homes.

Time will tell how “Idol” fares with its new lineup. Like Demi Lovato, Britney Spears and any number of other pop stars to brave discussing their craft on a stage different from the one that catapulted them to fame, Minaj and Carey will have the opportunity to prove they’re more than just pretty faces, particularly during the early audition rounds, before viewers begin developing a rooting interest in the hopefuls.

But first impressions are important, and in this case it sure feels like by having misjudged the art of judging — oops — they did it again.

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