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Image: "American Idol" tryouts
Chris Park  /  AP file
Will "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell actually like these season 7 hopeful as much they think? They'll have to first make it through many screenings at the tryouts before even auditioning for the cranky judge and his two cohorts.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/7/2008 2:33:25 PM ET 2008-01-07T19:33:25
Ask the Reality TV expert

In just one week, "American Idol 7" will debut, ready to capture the nation's attention once again. The No. 1 television show in the country generates big ratings and tons of questions — from how much contestants are paid to why producers insist upon selecting bad singers year after year.

FOX isn't always forthcoming about its top show — most likely because that silence keeps people talking and guessing — but from past contestants, media reports and other sources, there are many answers.

Here, then, are the most frequently asked questions about "American Idol." Once the seventh season begins, make sure to send in your new questions.

Q: How much does it cost to audition for ‘American Idol’?

A: Nothing. However, it can get expensive to travel to an audition location and stay overnight, particularly if you live nowhere near the audition location.

Q: Why does ‘American Idol’ pick bad singers?

A: Because that's what people want to watch. Producers intentionally move awful singers through the audition process. The tens of thousands of people who show up to audition in each city are screened many times before they ever see the judges (who only show up for the final day or two), and those producers get rid of everyone except the good and the very bad, ensuring that both the judges and viewers will see only the most entertaining — or horrifying — performances.

Q: Why do some auditioning contestants appear in montages singing songs that they did not sing in front of the judges?

A: Those performances are recorded well before the contestant ever makes it in front of the judges, although they stand in front of a backdrop that's identical to the one that's set up in front of the judges. Producers ask auditioners — particularly the bad ones — to sing certain songs to create those montages.

Slideshow: ‘Idol’ auditions

Q: Why are there contestants older than 28 on the show?

A: The show's age limit — currently, contestants must be 28; in earlier seasons, it was 24 — comes into play only when they audition . Thus, turning 29 the day after the audition means a contestant is still eligible to compete.

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Q: How do contestants choose their songs?

A: On Thursdays, finalists have about one hour to pick their song after learning the following week's theme. While they're given dozens of options, they're free to choose any song, as long as producers can get permission from the artists, writers and/or record labels.

Q: What is the contestants' weekly schedule?

A: Finalists follow the same schedule each week, as The Washington Post revealed last year. On Thursdays, the day after the elimination, they select their new song and record it to help the composers create the musical accompaniment. Fridays are spent rehearsing with vocal coaches, while on weekends, they shoot commercials and other segments, and go shopping for clothes. On Mondays, they rehearse their own song and the group song, if there is one. On Tuesdays, the day of the live show, they rehearse three times to ensure that everything from sound to camera placement is good, and then they perform live.

Q: How is the performance order decided?

A: Producers arrange the contestants' performances every week, based upon their song choice and other, sometimes more arbitrary criteria.

Q: Why don't the clips at the end of performance episodes match the actual performance?

A: In the past, those clips have been culled from the dress rehearsal earlier in the day, giving producers time to select the best moment and edit them all together.

Q: How do family member's afford to be in the audience?

A: They sacrifice.

Q: Do finalists buy their own clothes?

A: Yes, but with the help of the show's stylists, and using a weekly clothing budget supplied by the shows.

Q: How much do finalists get paid? Are they paid for the the tour?

A: Those on the tour get a flat rate per tour stop, while finalists — who become members of AFTRA — received $921 for every show last season.

Q: What happens to a contestant after they're eliminated?

A:

Shortly after the conclusion of the live results show, all of the contestants go out to dinner at a restaurant of their choosing.

At that dinner, each non-eliminated contestant talks about the person who was voted off, according to MTV News.

Booted contestants then spend the following day — or days — doing interviews with the media, and then they return to their old lives or start their new post-"Idol" lives.

Q: How does the show enforce its voting time window?

Slideshow: ‘American Idol’s’ finalists A: After Ryan Seacrest announces that viewers have two hours (or whatever) to vote following the conclusion of a performance episode, that voting is restricted by time zone , based upon your phone's area code. You can vote only during the voting window that follows the broadcast in your time zone. Thus, someone in California can't vote following the East Coast broadcast — unless they have a cell phone with an East Coast area code.

Likewise, someone living in Florida who has a cell phone with a Seattle area code can't vote after the East Coast broadcast; they'd have to wait for the West Coast broadcast to conclude.

Q: Is DialIdol an accurate predictor? Does Vote for the Worst have any impact?

A: DialIdol is accurate sometimes. The program, which can be downloaded for free and which dials "American Idol" voting phone numbers for you, doesn't measure votes — it measures how often it receives a busy signal and uses that data to predict who will go home.

As for Vote for the Worst, the site gathers lots of media attention for its witty and fun commentary. But no one they've ever selected has lasted the whole season and won the competition, and the site ends up choosing a new "worst" contestant every time their selection gets voted off.

Q: Why doesn't the show reveal the number or percentage of votes that each contestant received?

A: No one knows for sure, but the most obvious answer seems to be that the lack of information keeps people tuning in and keeps the drama and tension high. If one contestant dominated week after week, viewers might stop voting or even watching.

Q: What kind of contract do ‘American Idol’ finalists have to sign?

A: Among other things, it gives the series' producers, 19 Entertainment, the right to sign them before anyone else, and keeps them from releasing CDs or songs before the show's winner.

Q: Who picks the singles that the winners perform?

A: Last year, America did, thanks to the show's first-ever songwriting contest. That left the contestants with an awful ballad , just like in previous years, when producers selected the song.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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