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Fox is thanking lucky stars for Sanjaya

Is “American Idol” better for the sideshow that was the Mane Event? By Stuart Levine
/ Source: contributor

So we finally, and mercifully, say goodbye to Sanjaya Malakar, whose rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” was dreadful enough to convince both Howard Stern fans and Vote for the Worst voters — the two factions that had backed Sanjaya up to this point — that it was time for their man to go. Or maybe Sanjaya's downfall was the teen girls who kept running up their phone bills in support for their heartthrob, but suddenly decided to throw their affection to Blake or Chris.

Sanjaya’s ability to reach this point, however, is remarkable for someone who clearly didn’t have the chops to be considered the seventh best “American Idol” finalist in the country. Seventh best in Kansas City or Tacoma possibly, but certainly not in all of the U.S. of A.

Is “American Idol” better for the sideshow that was the Mane Event?

From a musical perspective, it’s an easy answer. Definitely not. Week after week the guy butchered anything and everything. Could he impress at a local karaoke bar? Absolutely. That certainly doesn’t make him worthy, however, of being on stage in front of 30 million or so TV viewers every week.

You have to give him credit for consistency, though. It didn’t matter the theme — Britain’s ’60s tunes, country music — or the tutor (Gwen Stefani, Tony Bennett, Diana Ross). Sanjaya was equally bad throughout. We’ll throw him a bone and say last week under J.Lo’s tutelage he wasn’t the worst on Latin night with his seated rendition of “Besamé Mucho.” Barely.

Ultimately, though, the constant public humiliation wasn’t his fault. It was Simon, Randy and Paula who kept giving him passing grades to get to this point, right? Don’t they have to take some of the blame for his rise to musical mediocrity?

During the auditions the judges created a monster, and then when it came to the final 12, they couldn’t kill the beast. No matter how negative Simon’s comments were, America just didn’t seem to get the hint.

Even Paula, the judge who always finds the silver lining, barely had a good word to say when Sanjaya was under the microscope. Randy was often left laughing before giving judgment — or was he crying?

Simon, using reverse psychology, even gave Sanjaya faint praise, calling one of his performances “incredible,” as if hoping that might change America’s mind.

Fox must have enjoyed the rideBut, on the other side of the coin, was Fox worse off for having Sanjaya last this long?

Simon is wrong when he constantly harps, “This is a singing competition.” Not really. “American Idol” is a television show — and a gargantuan one at that — and there’s nothing producers want more than controversy to spice up the ratings.

Not that “Idol” needs spicing. Now in its sixth season, the show has become a television phenomenon. Fox executives have the luxury of not having to find new hits every year to stay competitive with NBC, CBS and ABC, knowing that once they unleash “Idol” every January, no other show can come close.

If “Idol” wasn’t enough of a worldwide phenomenon before, having Sanjaya knee-deep in the contest certainly helped it become even more talked about. Folks who didn’t watch past seasons suddenly found themselves tuning in for the first time just to be versed in all-things Sanjaya.

Forget the music, some viewers tuned in simply to see how his hair was going to be styled. Would we get the “faux-hawk” again, or would be tied up in a bun? Straightened, with bangs, or, maybe the Britney look — completely shaven? Forget Angelina, Suri and Paris, Sanjaya would’ve certainly been the tabloid king for that week.

Producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick and Fox president Peter Liguori have probably been licking their chops, reeling in viewers who just wanted to feel like they were taking part in America’s obsession with all things Sanjaya.

What might have beenMuch was made of how long Sanjaya was going to last on the show. Many “Idol” staffers — Cowell, Jackson and Warwick, to name a few — logically reasoned that he couldn’t make it to the final two or three because the other contestants would have too much voting power behind them. When the vote is split among nine or 10 players, Vote for the Worst schemes can pay off. It doesn’t happen when 15 million people are all supporting someone else, though.

But, just for a moment, drift into a world where Sanjaya is standing on stage at the Kodak Theatre during the finale — with only Melinda Doolittle separating him from true greatness. Can you name one person who wouldn’t watch?

Talk about a ratings-grabber, that imaginary show might have even surpassed the final episode of “M*A*S*H” as the all-time most-watched show in TV history.

Now, we’ll never have that opportunity to find out. Sanjaya is gone and music, not madness, will once again take center stage every Tuesday night.

It’s all probably for the best. Sanjaya had a glorious run and reminded us that maybe we all take “Idol” a bit too seriously. It is just a television show, people. There’s nothing better than this week’s tragedy at Virginia Tech to keep it all in perspective. Lives aren’t at stake. The sun will come up tomorrow whether Sanjaya performs next week or not.

And despite the boot, he’s probably going to be around for awhile.

As runners-up Clay Aiken and Chris Daughtry constantly remind us, once you’re an “Idol” star, your fame goes way beyond how well you can sing.

Sanjaya, smarter than we give him credit for, learned that lesson a long time ago.

Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Variety. You can reach him at .