STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
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")
SIMON COWELL: 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: Ellen DeGeneres joined the show as the nice one.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")
ELLEN DEGENERES: 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.
ERIC DEGGANS: 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.
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")
JANICE DICKINSON: 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")
MICHAEL KORS: 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.
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: Gail Simmons, on "Top Chef."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOP CHEF")
GAIL SIMMONS: I think the idea for your rice is perfectly fine, but it was broken. It was mealy. It was overcooked.
ULABY: 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")
ADAM SHANKMAN: You have to dance like a tall person. Let your legs really stretch in the ronde de jambe. All right?
OK: Unidentified Man: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BRIAN MOYLAN: 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.
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: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.