STEVE INSKEEP, host:
After months of rumor and speculation, one of the most popular television shows in the world, "American Idol," is announcing its new lineup of judges today.
Judges are the heart of this kind of reality show, so NPR's Neda Ulaby offers some judgments of judges.
(Soundbite of theme song, "American Idol")
NEDA ULABY: Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell - the trifecta helped make "American Idol" a franchise worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Cowell brought the most authority, as a music executive with decades of experience and a masterly mean streak.
(Soundbite of TV show, "American Idol")
Mr. SIMON COWELL (Former Judge, "American Idol"): You're like taking a very well-trained spaniel for a walk. You kind of - it's all going to be safe. It's going to be quite nice, but I didn't think it was incredible. I don't get the feeling from you tonight that you can win this competition.
ULABY: The guy he was talking to, Kris Allen, did win the competition. Still, Simon prevailed as chief judge even as the trifecta fell apart.
Ellen DeGeneres joined the show as the nice one.
(Soundbite of TV show, "American Idol")
Ms. ELLEN DEGENERES (Former Judge, "American Idol"): I think you did better than a pretty good job. I think every song you take, you make it your own.
ULABY: DeGeneres left after just one season. TV critic Eric Deggans says she was too soft.
Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (TV Critic): Why would you join a show where you're a judge if you're not comfortable judging people? I mean, that's like in the job title - judge.
ULABY: But if you're Ellen DeGeneres - famous for your easy-going likeability -it doesn't behoove you to compromise that.
Mr. DEGGANS: Every time she opens her mouth, a multimillion-dollar brand is on the line. I mean, if you're not brutal and you're not crazy, then you don't bring much. I mean, that's the sad fact of it.
ULABY: You can bring too much if you're brutal and crazy. "America's Next Top Model" fans may recall former judge Janice Dickinson and her excessive, overwrought critiques.
(Soundbite of TV show, "America's Next Top Model")
Ms. JANICE DICKINSON (Former Judge, "America's Next Top Model"): This is the worst photograph I've ever seen. You look deranged. Your arms look amputeed(ph). Your legs look amputeed. And it looks like you have a penis.
ULABY: Better respected reality show judges don't distract from the contestants. They help them. And they help viewers judge them better.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Project Runway")
Mr. MICHAEL KORS (Judge, "Project Runway"): This is what harmony looks like. It's not matchy-matchy.
ULABY: "Project Runway's" Michael Kors can change the way you look at a flowing, bronze-colored gown.
Mr. KORS: I love the idea that she's kind of, you know, goddess of the sea without being a costume. Can we see the back? It looks effortless. You know, when you wear something that's draped and asymmetrical like this, that's what you want.
ULABY: A good judge also demystifies a difficult process. He or she explains why something's hard to pull off.
Gail Simmons, on "Top Chef."
(Soundbite of TV show, "Top Chef")
Ms. GAIL SIMMONS (Judge, "Top Chef"): I think the idea for your rice is perfectly fine, but it was broken. It was mealy. It was overcooked.
ULABY: A few art forms really lend themselves to the crit. The visual artists on Bravo's "Work of Art," or dancers - people who've been judged in groups their entire working lives.
Here's judge Adam Shankman on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance," guiding a contestant who tends to hunch over.
(Soundbite of TV show, "So You Think You Can Dance")
Mr. ADAM SHANKMAN (Judge, "So You Think You Can Dance"): You have to dance like a tall person. Let your legs really stretch in the ronde de jambe. All right?
Unidentified Woman: OK. OK.
Unidentified Man: Thank you.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
Mr. BRIAN MOYLAN (Writer, Gawker.com): I don't know the difference between a pasodoble and a foxtrot.
ULABY: Brian Moylan covers reality TV for the Web site Gawker. Most of us, he says, are not ballroom dancers, nor do we regularly eat "Top Chef"-style food or wear couture gowns. So we need judges for those shows. Less so for "American Idol." We've judged popular music our whole lives.
Mr. MOYLAN: We can hear a song - like, you know, I heard this song on TV just like I'd hear the song on the radio. And you know, you hear a song on the radio and you say: I like that song. I'm gonna buy it. I want to hear more of this person. You know, I don't need somebody to tell me whether or not they were good. I know. I've been listening to music a long time.
ULABY: "American Idol's" winner is decided ultimately not by the judges, but by armies of texting fans. Moylan says he cannot think of a single other reality show that needs judges less than "American Idol."
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.