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Image: William Hung
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No William Hung, you aren't No. 1! In fact, you're one of "Idol's" biggest mistakes!
By
TODAY contributor
updated 1/14/2011 8:08:31 PM ET 2011-01-15T01:08:31
Opinion

As “American Idol” prepares to celebrate its 10th birthday, it is pulling out all the stops to remind everyone why the show has been such a game-changer in the television and music industry. We see a parade of former winners and successful also-rans talking about how the competition made them stars, and judges speaking solemnly about how wonderful “Idol” is and how they plan to carry on the tradition.

Believe me, I like my birthday to be all about the cake and ice cream too, but birthdays are also a reminder that I’m another year older and it’s also nice to have friends who remind me that that I’ve made plenty of screwups as well as successes.

So from a friend of the show, here are 10 moments that, if the “Idol” folks had to do it all over again, they should take back.

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1. 'From Justin to Kelly'
From an entertainment perspective, it probably made sense to make this movie starring season one winner Kelly Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini, much like it makes sense to have Snooki from the "Jersey Shore" write a book even though it’s an open question whether she can even read one. Strike while the iron is hot, all publicity is good publicity. Insert whatever cliché you prefer that involves making a quick buck when the opportunity arises.

But it not only was a terrible film, it cheapened the “Idol” brand by making it seem even more studio-generated and gimmicky than it is. Thankfully, everyone agreed with that analysis, so we don’t have “From Crystal to Lee” to look forward to this summer.

Story: Top 10 things 'Idol' judges need to do this season

2. The Paula Abdul-Corey Clark saga
It was only a matter of time before a disgruntled former contestant made the news, and season two’s Corey Clark did so by alleging an improper relationship with judge Paula Abdul. Not only did Paula coach him on song choice and performance, Clark said — he also alleged that they were having a sexual affair.

This did not turn out as badly as it might have, even with the negative publicity that resulted. Paula overcame the accusation, the show made fun of it in skits and Clark was soon relegated again to the dustbin of musical history. But it caused a lot of headaches and could have been a whole lot worse.

3. William Hung
There were terrible auditioners before William Hung, but he was the first to take his lack of talent and make a little money off it. That gave the show the idea that presenting a lot of these no-talents would be a wonderful use of audition time, and ears around the country started to bleed uncontrollably.

And while we’re at it, who decided that showing so much footage of auditioners wearing ridiculous costumes was a good idea? That led to people dressing up in wacky getups just to get on television every year, and brought us everything from a male Statue of Liberty to Bikini Girl.

4. Jennifer Hudson’s early exit
The fact that the future Oscar winner was unfairly voted off early has become part of "Idol" lore. But in fairness to everyone out there, this is one of those decisions that looks unjust in hindsight, but did not seem amiss at the time.

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Though she was one of the so-called Three Divas in season three, I don’t know anyone who didn’t rank her third behind LaToya London and eventual winner Fantasia Barrino. The controversy wasn’t that she was voted off, it was that all three divas were up for elimination in the bottom three that week, while the likes of John Stevens and Jasmine Trias were safe.

Hudson’s success is a credit to her talent and her work ethic. But while “Idol” probably wishes that she had wound up the season three winner, that was never a realistic outcome at the time.

Story: Lythgoe dishes on 'Idol' contestants to watch

5. Not finding another Carrie Underwood
Underwood is like something out of a fairy tale: the pretty, small-town girl with a great voice who needs only a chance to make it in the big city. She came around in season four when the show badly needed a star, and is a big reason why the show revitalized after a dull and disappointing third season.

Her story is such a cliché that it’s a wonder “Idol” hasn’t gone back to that well. Kellie Pickler hung around for awhile in season five, but since then there haven’t been many country women, despite the fact that it’s a genre that always seems to be growing. It’s inexplicable that the show has chosen not to mine this story line since then. Fewer rockers, more country!

6. The Daughtry debacle
There’s no Jennifer Hudson excuse available here. This, America, is your biggest mistake thus far.

Chris Daughtry was the overwhelming favorite to win season five, but inexplicably was voted off with three weeks left, finishing in fourth place. Once he was gone, there were no good options left for viewers to vote for. Taylor Hicks goes down as the worst winner ever — as far as his subsequent record sales go. However, Kat McPhee and Paris Bennett would both have had that honor as well had they won.

The elimination hasn’t hurt Daughtry any, as he’s had a stellar career since as the frontman for the rock band he named after himself. But it deprived the show of a worthy champion in favor of a guy who is best known for inspiring the Soul Patrol, a legion of fans who vanished as soon as Hicks' album dropped.

7. Trying to make up for the Daughtry debacle
Both the show and the voters deserve the blame for this one. For the past three seasons, we’ve tried to atone for the mistake of voting Daughtry off by giving the rocker men every break in the world, and thus we’ve gotten a lot of Daughtry Lite on the menu.

David Cook was a legit winner in season seven, an experienced musician who was great at putting a different spin on a familiar song. But Kris Allen? Lee DeWyze? Would anyone really trade their future careers for those of runner-ups Adam Lambert and Crystal Bowersox? Haven’t we atoned enough for our season five mistakes already?

8. Not knowing what to do with Ellen DeGeneres
Hiring Ellen as a judge was a no-brainer. She had a huge fan base thanks to her long career as a comedian and her very successful talk show. She was also a big fan of “Idol” and should have been a fantastic judge.

But she wasn’t because she was allowed to drift and never got into a comfort level with the rest of the judges. Uncomfortable with her role, and seemingly without direction on what she should be doing, she stepped down after a single year, marking a wasted opportunity. To get back on track, "Idol" will need to make sure that doesn’t happen with Jennifer Lopez.

9. The Simon Cowell walk year
It’s tough to handle a big star in the final year of his or her contract, but how “American Idol” handled the Simon Cowell situation a year ago won’t exactly be talked about as a best practice in business journals.

It was the worst of both worlds. Simon’s exit became the story of the season, overshadowing the singers. He seemed to spend the whole year watching himself on the monitor, saying the same old things and looking like he was mentally planning what he’d do with his next show while the “Idol” contestants strutted their stuff. He was less of an asset and more of a distraction, a disappointing send-off to a legendary run on the show.

10. Marketing the winners
One of the biggest criticisms I have of "Idol" is that it forgets about the winner as soon as the finale ends. Because the show is off the air from May until January, “Idol” allows its millions of fans to vanish into the ether, rather than having Fox actively encourage them to continue to support the winner.

It’s great that “Idol” isn’t another “Survivor,” which seems to have seven seasons per calendar year, but how about something like a two-hour special in the fall to mark the release of the first albums by the top performers of the previous year? It would be a great way to remind viewers that the people they call and text their votes for — and passionately argue about on the Internet — are trying to have musical careers beyond the point they get voted off the show.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/craigberman.

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