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‘Idol’ 101: Who's who, and how does it work?

Haven’t been able to tear yourself away from “Criminal Minds” long enough to get a sense of what this "American Idol" obsession is all about? Here’s a quick primer. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“American Idol,” which completes its sixth season this week, has become a pop-culture phenomenon, and anyone not familiar with it risks being left out of all the conversations and speculation at the office and over the Internet. But despite what the ratings may say, not everyone in the known universe watches the show.

Haven’t been able to tear yourself away from “Criminal Minds” long enough to get a sense of what this strange obsession is all about? Here’s a quick primer on what everyone else is talking about.

The Format
“American Idol” isn’t rocket science. Singers sing. Judges make comments. Viewers pick the winner.

Essentially, it’s just that simple. “Idol” has become a ratings juggernaut by taking the plain old talent show, polishing it up with glitz and glamour, and making it look like something new and different.

There are a few key wrinkles. This isn’t a one-viewer, one-vote affair. It’s more like stereotypical Chicago politics, where partisans are encouraged to vote early and often. Those with a tendency to obsess over their favorite entertainers have a natural outlet for their fanaticism.

But at its roots, “Idol” is the talent competition every town has at the local civic center, except that it’s on national television and the prize isn’t a gift certificate to Applebee's.

The show is also a global phenomenon. The program began in Britain, as "Pop Idol," and has expanded across the globe. At this point, it’s hard to find a country that doesn’t have its own version of the show, so any complaints about this being a sign of low-brow nature of American entertainment doesn’t wash. Turn to “My Super Sweet 16” for those discussions instead.

The Judges
Randy Jackson
, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell have been the ruling troika since the show’s first season. Occasionally a guest judge joins them, but normally they look as out of place as a mom tagging along to a senior prom.

Once they've selected the 24 semifinalists, the judges' role in the competition is limited to offering commentary. But they still have a lot of power because their opinions carry significant weight. As the competition tightens, the talent difference between the contestants tends to shrink. If they tell the audience to , a significant crowd will do just that. So the contestants have to smile and pretend to take the judges seriously even as they’re wondering how any of them can, for example, claim to have never heard of a contemporary hit that’s on the radio 12 times an hour.

Randy is the first to give comments. If he likes a contestant, look for him to use “dawg,” “hot” and “the bomb” in various combinations. The more of those words he uses, the better he likes the performance. “You were the bomb, dawg – that was hot” is the generic compliment of choice. On the other hand, a contestant never wants to hear Randy start off with “Keeping it real.” That’s almost always followed by either “it was just a’ight for me” or “it wasn’t good.” Anyone daring to sing something by Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, or anyone else Randy either worked with or idolized is a good bet to get those kind of comments.

Paula is the cheerleader, and as such she smiles and says nice things even as it sometimes appears that she isn’t really paying attention in class. Her comments on the vocals tend to be a mirror of whatever Randy just said, but she’s always good for an additional compliment on how nice the contestant looks (they all look "beautiful" or "fabulous"). Even when Paula offers criticism, she does so with good cheer and makes them sound more palatable, offering a glassful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Any contestant who hears Paula’s feedback and doesn’t feel good about themselves is probably in serious trouble.

Simon is the only judge who matters. Don’t believe it? Just ask him.

Simon’s main talent is saying critical things in a nasty way and getting away with it because he’s usually right and he always says it in a British accent. A contestant doesn’t sing poorly, he sings like a bad cabaret performer in a nightclub in Lisbon. He’s gotten away from this season, which may be why the ratings are a little down.

On the other hand, Simon tends to be looking for a specific sound from a specific singer, and that changes every week depending on his mood.

He’ll tell people to take more risks one week, and then complain that he hasn’t heard of the song selected or he doesn’t like the arrangement when the singer actually takes his advice. Anyone who picks an alt-rock or college-radio song written in the past decade does so knowing that Simon’s going to comment that he’s unfamiliar with it. On the other hand, those who stick to the standards will probably get gripes about sounding old.

The contestants take Simon’s comments more seriously than the rest, because the perception is that his words carry more weight. They’ll nod as Randy and Paula make their observations, but the big smile breaks out only if Simon also approves.

The Host
Ryan Seacrest has been the show’s emcee from the beginning. Since supposed actor/comedian Brian Dunkleman left after the first season, Ryan has been the sole host.

If he looks and sounds familiar, it’s because “Idol” is just one of Ryan’s many, many hosting gigs. He hosts a radio show in Los Angeles as well as the nationally-syndicated “American Top 40” program. In addition, he hosts the New Year’s Eve celebration traditionally manned by Dick Clark, appears frequently on “E!”, and guest-hosts “Larry King Live” on CNN. Sources say he also mows lawns and performs at children’s birthday parties.

For those watching the show for the first time, Ryan’s exchanges with the judges may seem witty and clever. Don’t try and impress friends by saying that, however, because most conversations are basically the same few jokes recycled from week to week. In Ryan’s defense, after six years of television marriage to Randy, Paula and Simon, it’s no wonder they usually have trouble making conversation.

Ryan is most notable for exchanging barbs with Simon, a fair number of which question each other’s sexual preference. Despite the verbal hijinks, the two are reportedly close friends, so essentially it's locker room conversation toned down for the Fox censors (and reportedly, ). The host is also good at biting the hand that feeds him by making snarky comments about the amount of filler on the rewards show, a clever way of ingratiating himself with an audience that has to sit through 55 minutes of extraneous programming to get to the five minutes that really matter.

The Mentors
Each week, the “Idol” finalists are treated to mentoring sessions with a guest artist. The quality of the guests has improved as the show’s ratings have improved, as any reservations about helping others take shortcuts to musical stardom are outweighed by the musicians' desire to sell to “Idol's” massive viewing audience.

This season’s guests included Gwen Stefani, Jon Bon Jovi and Jennifer Lopez, each of whom produces music targeting the young viewers. Of course, also included were Tony Bennett, Peter Noone and Barry Gibb, more familiar to the contestants’ parents and grandparents. As Forrest Gump might say, the Idol mentors are like a box of chocolates ... you never know what you’re gonna get.

The Product PlacementIf a face in the studio audience looks familiar, check the FOX schedule in TV Guide. It would seem that every star of every show on the network is required to be in the audience at least once a year. Most bring their kids and make a family night of it, though there’s occasionally the delightful scene of a noted actor who looks like he’s about to fire his agent for making him show up. Christopher Lloyd, who appeared with the cast of “Stacked” in the crowd last year, is the classic example of that.

Let’s not even talk about the Ford commercials only lightly disguised as music videos that the contestants have to appear in each week. Undoubtedly they are as embarrassing to shoot as they are to watch. The other big sponsor, Coca-Cola, shows up in the logoed glasses from which the judges drink — though there's been plenty of speculation about what beverage they're really chugging.

The Past
This is the show’s sixth season. Past champions, in order, are Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks.

Clarkson and Underwood have had the most commercial success, with both picking up two Grammys and numerous other awards. Barrino also parlayed the show into a successful career. Studdard hasn’t done as much, and Hicks doesn’t appear to be off to a great start either. In the latter cases, other singers from Studdard and Hicks' seasons have outstripped them in sales (Clay Aiken from season two, and Chris Daughtry from season five). That shows that sometimes when America votes, it gets things wrong.

The fact that some alums have become legitimate superstars — not just winners, but also-rans like Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson — gives the show more credibility. Clarkson and Underwood in particular have used “Idol” as a springboard to become legitimate headlining acts, while Hudson may be the most successful entertainer of them all at this point based on her performance in “Dreamgirls.”

A number of finalists who don’t make it onto the pop charts wind up on Broadway or working elsewhere in entertainment, so just being among the final 12 performers each season is usually enough to require hiring a good agent.

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The Present
Your final two contenders are Blake Lewis, 25, and Jordin Sparks, 17.

Blake is best known for his beatboxing talents, and tries to work that ability into almost every performance. He's also a fan of creative song arrangments, and has been both praised for taking risks and criticized when the risks don't quite work with the song in question.

Jordin has shown an impressive vocal range and seems unflappable, especially considering her age. She's occasionally been criticized for singing songs that seem old-fashioned for her youth, and for not taking the kind of risks with daring tunes and musical choices that Blake has.

Who will win? This one's a . Numerous fans thought Melinda Doolittle, 29, should have made the finals instead of Blake or Jordin, but although Melinda was incredibly consistent, she just didn't pull the fan numbers that the others did.

Looking for that person you’ve been hearing murmurs about?

He’s long gone, finishing in seventh place despite the best efforts of Howard Stern, the Internet, and the Taliban. All were under the mistaken impression that the show would fall off the ratings cliff if the 17-year-old with great hair and average talent won the competition, despite the fact that Taylor Hicks won last year and the show’s still doing remarkably well.

The Prize
The winner on “Idol” gets a million-dollar record deal and all the fame that goes with it.

The runner-up? For all practical purposes, the prize is essentially the same. Getting to this point means a sizeable fanbase cares enough to call and text their votes, which usually means some of them will be willing to buy an album.

The SecretNo, it’s not that positive thoughts will lead to the best candidate winning.

“Idol” has taken a basic concept and made it into a hit because it’s brilliant in both its timing and its way of making viewers care about who wins.

Unlike most other reality programs that seem to be on 52 weeks a year and then die of overexposure, “Idol” has just one season per year.

The show airs from January to May, straight through with no repeats, and then is gone until the following year. It picks up momentum by showing the always-popular auditions, and it doesn’t give the audience an excuse to change the channel until the final bucket of confetti is dropped at the finale.

It’s also great at taking a bunch of anonymous performers and giving the audience a stake in their career. Millions of viewers who would have changed the station in December if either finalist appeared on the radio are prepared to spend hours on Tuesday night giving their fingers a workout by calling and texting their votes.

Because “Idol” shows how the contestants evolve from their first auditions to their final performance, it gives the viewers a chance to feel like they, too, have “discovered” the latest musical star. There's still time to jump on the bandwagon.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.