There are plenty of reasons to defend Sanjaya

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/ Source: msnbc.com contributor
By By Craig Berman

To hear critics talk, Sanjaya Malakar’s ascendancy to the final eight on “American Idol” is a travesty, threatening the success of the show’s brand name and the credibility of the musical competition. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sanjaya is not the best singer in the history of the competition. He’s not even the best of this season’s finalists. But he’s not a disaster either. In fact, those who are looking to tear him down or use him as an example of the show’s weakness need to keep a few things in mind before ranting away.

Sanjaya’s not the one who put himself into the semifinals
Every time the judges rip on Sanjaya, or insinuate that he shouldn’t be on the show, keep in mind that it wasn’t the show’s viewers who made him a candidate in the first place. That honor belongs to none other than the three judges; Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell. Those are the three who pick the show’s 24 semifinalists, and the viewers have no say in the process until that stage of the game. Moreover, the producers, editors and judges set Malakar up in a great position to succeed by giving him a ton of airtime on the audition episodes, then making him the only teenager among the 12 male finalists. In a crowded semifinal field, he stood out for his youth, giving him an early voting bloc at a time when some rivals were struggling to get their names out there.

So if the viewers are being dumb and short-sighted by continuing to vote for Sanjaya, what does that make the people who put his candidacy forward in the first place?His success is not the result of an Internet conspiracyDon’t overestimate the effects of the Howard Stern show, much less Web sites like . Their effect on the results is likely negligible, because the producers make it difficult for that sort of effort to succeed.

The phone numbers for each contestant change every week. That means that someone who hates the show enough to want to see it fail has to watch it anyway on Tuesday nights in order to get the phone number to call. They then have to wait until 9 p.m. in their time zone to call in, and probably will have to keep trying for at least several minutes in order to get through. How many people who don’t even like the show are putting in that kind of effort each week?

Also keep in mind that the naysayer Web sites simply pick a new candidate once the old one is voted off. Sanjaya wasn’t the first to be targeted by the Web sites this season; that was Antonella Barba. And if Web sites can’t keep a contestant who has risqué pictures (some apparently real, some not) added to the Internet by the day, what are the odds that they can lead someone like Malakar to glory?

There’s always a worst-case option to vote for; when Sanjaya goes it will simply be Phil Stacey, or Haley Scarnato, or one of the other finalists. So the explanation for Sanjaya’s success isn’t the Internet. It’s more likely that: In popularity contests, nice guys finish firstLove his singing or hate it, there’s no way Sanjaya comes across as anything but likeable. He’s a 17-year-old kid in an adult competition, hearing every week that he isn’t good enough to be there. How many teenagers could handle that strain without attacking the judges with a music stand?

Yet Malakar doesn’t react as though he’s bothered by the criticism. He knows the judges don’t like him, but he reacts with a smile and an occasional half-hearted barb to their comments. He has nothing but good cheer for everyone each week, and indeed tends to come across as one of the calmer, more self-assured competitors.

In addition, Sanjaya’s strategy has been more than a little brilliant. The Mohawk haircut he sported a couple of weeks ago got him a ton of extra attention, to the point where Ryan Seacrest sported a faux-hawk while hosting the next day’s show. Sure, he looked ridiculous. But he got people interested in him, to the point where some watch the show now to see what Sanjaya will do next. That’s not something many of his rivals can say.

Even when he dresses normally, he looks and acts like a nice kid that the big mean adults are picking on, and that’s always going to win some sympathy votes. That’s why the judges have gone easier on him in recent weeks, knowing that their vitriol is counterproductive. Alas, for the judges, there’s one more problem.

Sanjaya’s not a bad singer
Sanjaya Malakar has a melodious voice that legitimately has captured a fan base. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s not the best in the field, but nor does he sound like a karaoke king who got lost on his way to the bar and wound up onstage.

Malakar suffers from what every teenage male on the show has always suffered from; he’s a boy among men, and his voice isn’t as developed as his rivals. There’s nothing he can do about that, unless one of his fans invents an aging machine over the next few days. But that’s the worst thing his critics can say about him; if he doesn’t do much to inspire raves, he also doesn’t sing poorly enough to risk being pelted by rotten tomatoes.

Ultimately, Sanjaya is an adequate singer in a field that lacks depth. Sure, he’s nowhere close to the best singer out there, but Melinda Doolittle is so far ahead of the pack in that regard that seven of the eight remaining contestants are in the same boat. Even including fellow teen Jordin Sparks and LaKisha Jones as strong contenders, and throwing in Blake Lewis as the strongest of the men, that leaves four candidates remaining with little chance of winning; Malakar, Phil Stacey, Haley Scarnato and Chris Richardson.

Is Malakar really that much worse than the other three? Is his future in the pop music industry worse than Stacey’s, or Scarnato’s? Probably not, but he’s the one who has inspired the derision.

But ultimately, the dirty little secret of the show is:

Even if Sanjaya wins, who cares?“American Idol” is in business for two things; building ratings and discovering and creating pop stars. It’s the king of the former, and the Sanjaya story is only adding to that. What better reason to watch each week than to see how the latest pop-culture prince will fare?

The odds of him winning are infinitesimal. Every year, a candidate or two lasts much longer than expected, fueling the annual “what happens if [that year’s fall guy] actually wins” stories. Every year, that candidate eventually gets sent packing. Anyone remember season four’s Scott Savol? Or season three’s John Stevens?

But say this year is different, and Sanjaya shocks the world and wins it all. What happens?

The answer is that not many people will remember that in a couple of years, and “Idol” won’t be reminding its viewers either. Quick, who won the second season of the show, Clay Aiken or Ruben Studdard? Who won last year, Taylor Hicks or Chris Daughtry? In both cases, the also-rans have had a larger profile, both on the show and off, than the winners.

That’s because “Idol” is all about pop success. If Melinda Doolittle comes in second and Jordin Sparks third, but both have debut albums that leave the winner’s in the dust, they’ll be the ones pointed to as examples of the show’s success. Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson got voted off  season three’s competition before several rivals who fell off the pop landscape soon afterwards — but nobody remembers that she came in seventh. All anyone knows is that she was on the show.

The sixth season of “Idol” will be a disappointment if all of its finalists strike out in the music business, but that’s unlikely to happen. Doolittle, Sparks, Jones or someone else will sell enough to carry the banner for this year’s crew, and the successful ones will be the performers remembered.

In the meantime Sanjaya Malakar’s ascendancy only helps. It’s the sixth season of a glorified talent show that doesn’t change much from year to year, but the ratings dominance has continued because there’s always a reason to watch. Though he isn’t among the most talented singers, Sanjaya is certainly one of those reasons, which is probably what the show was hoping for in the first place. “American Idol” producers can be accused of many things, but stupidity isn’t among them.

Sanjaya Malakar is being talked about as though his survival on the program is the worst thing that could ever happen to “American Idol.” In fact, it’s one of the best.

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