In Charleston, S.C., "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest asked if the city would "be generous with fresh, untapped talent? We hope so."
But that was a lie, because "untapped talent" is not entirely what the series has found or seems to be searching for this season. Instead, as the auditions have proven, the show has been handed over to ringers. While they may not be paid shills, they are approved by the producers, who are using them to try to jump-start the FOX series.
In Dallas, we met Kady Malloy, who Simon Cowell said was "the best so far." Perhaps that's because she already produced an album. Kristy Lee Cook had a recording deal with Arista Nashville, while San Diego contestant David Archuleta, the 16-year-old with "vocal paralysis," already won a reality singing competition in 2003, becoming "Star Search’s" top "junior singer."
The San Diego audition episode concluded with our re-introduction to Carly Smithson, previously known as Carly Hennessy, who the show said had auditioned but was disqualified due to visa problems in 2005. What Seacrest and company neglected to mention was that she's also a recording artist — not a successful one, but one who produced an album backed by a huge marketing campaign.
These are just a few of the people with backgrounds in music or, in some cases, show business. As has now been well-documented online, "American Idol 7" is stocked with people who've already proven they have talent. The rules for the show only prevent auditioning contestants from having current recording contracts or managers, so their presence is acceptable, if questionable.
Working from a list of the Hollywood round's top 50 contestants, and later the top 24 semi-finalists, the site Vote for the Worst revealed that many of those who advance in the competition aren't exactly amateurs.
Of the top 24, who were selected by the judges last week but won't be revealed until an episode in mid-February, 10 have experience in the music industry, some with previously released records, and one has appeared on TV as an actor.
Slideshow: ‘Idol’ auditions Is this what Seacrest meant by "fresh, untapped talent"? Should people with proven talent and who are not new to the industry even be allowed to compete?
There have been people with professional experience on the show before, of course. Melinda Doolittle was a back-up singer, Chris Daughtry was part of a band that recorded an album, and so on.
But the preponderance of singers with experience who have appeared on the show (or will soon appear, once the auditions conclude) suggests something different is happening this season.
The audition episodes have made that clear, as people with industry experience aren't this season's only ringers. The four cities we've seen so far have hosted people who the producers have let advance in the competition despite the fact that they absolutely cannot win.
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On one level, this is nothing new. The audition episodes have always been a modern freak show, an opportunity for attention seekers to get their faces in front of a camera and 30 million people, give or take a few million.
But this year, some of those auditioning in front of the judges represent an obvious violation of the show's rules, as they exceeded its age limit (at least 16, no more than 28 at time of audition), in some cases by a decade or more.
Admitted Paula Abdul-stalker Paul Marturano — who sang, "I broke into her house when she wasn't there/took off my clothes and tried on her underwear" — is 32 years old. Milo Turk, who performed his own composition "No Sex Allowed," is 39. Renaldo Lapuz, who told Simon Cowell "we're brothers forever" in song, is 44.
Were these people amusing and entertaining? Absolutely, if occasionally disturbing. But should they have taken the spot of someone who might have been just an OK singer?
Slideshow: ‘American Idol’s’ finalists They were allowed to advance in the competition because they guaranteed good television, even if they had no shot at winning. Once the show passes these rounds, though, it becomes about more than just entertainment, especially since the series desperately needs to reestablish its credibility as a hit-maker.
The 11 semi-finalists who we now know have professional experience are, at the very least, guaranteed to not be Sanjayas — they won’t be musical jokes.
Since this group of quasi-ringers has already produced records or performed in professional contexts, they're more likely than completely green singers to be palatable to the recording industry and the world. Of course, there's an obvious problem: None of these people have found true success in recording industry yet, so their success is not assured. Most of them need "American Idol" as much as it needs them.
And, of course, there's no evidence they're true ringers, planted or paid by producers to show up and ensure greatness. The producers are responsible, however, as they've allowed all of them to advance in the competition. Their willingness to stock the top 24 with relatively proven singers appears to be born of insecurity.
Just as allowing older contestants to appear during the audition rounds suggests they didn't trust that their process would result in good television, they don't trust the process of finding undiscovered talent enough to exclude singers who have already managed to prove themselves in the industry.
Now that the contestants' connections have been revealed, however, voting viewers could reject them because they have an unfair advantage. Or perhaps the ringers will be outperformed by the truly fresh contestants. Either way, these revelations have damaged the show's credibility, or at least impacted its trustworthiness, and that continues to happen every time Seacrest or one of the judges talks about how the show is searching for new, undiscovered talent.
During another audition episode, Seacrest said, "It's season seven. You'd think people would realize, if you bring a gimmick, it's probably going to backfire." When viewers start voting or stop watching, the producers may finally realize that.
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