Surprise Hits: 'American Idol' turns viewers into critics

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The success of American Idol didn't exactly come out of nowhere; after all, Pop Idol, on which the vocal talent-search series was modeled, was already a hit in the U.K. before its creator, Simon Fuller, transported it across the Atlantic.

But hardly anything in the history of U.S. reality TV prior to Idol's June 2002 debut pointed to the scale of dominance it would achieve. It's been the top-rated show on TV in each of its nine seasons; NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker has called it "the most impactful show in the history of television."

Before Idol, every reality smash seemed to involve some level of exploitation, be it eating rats (Survivor) or bugs (Fear Factor), forsaking all privacy (Big Brother) or getting cozy in hot tubs for the enjoyment of the home viewing audience (The Bachelor, among others). Certainly, the Fox network, whose previous contributions to the genre included Temptation Island and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, was an unlikely home for this most wholesome and family-friendly of reality shows.

Not that Idol is without its quotient of voyeurism. But the appeal of the show -- and of Dancing With the Stars, Project Runway, Top Chef, and all the other elimination-style competitions it's inspired -- isn't in the humiliation it dispenses. It's in the way it encourages viewers to play critic. If you've watched even a few episodes of Idol, you've likely caught yourself dismissing a performance as lacking energy, or a bad song selection, or, yes, "pitchy." It's an impulse that transcends lines of age and social class and geography (although it has been noted that Southerners always seem to win). It turns out we've all got a little Simon Cowell in us.

Jeff Bercovici is the media columnist for DailyFinance.

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