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Not too long ago, television was a unifying force in American culture. With only three or four channels to choose from, the whole nation would come together around I Love Lucy or The Ed Sullivan Show. That does not happen so much in the age of hundreds of cable channels and the current cultural disunity, but it happened with American Idol.
The show was dreamed up in England, where it was called Pop Idol. But American Idol is very American. It is competitive, just like sports and our economic system. It is also democratic: The viewers get to vote for the candidate of their choice.
Some 70,000 contestants tried out in local auditions. After all of the winnowing and the voting, when only two were left standing, 65 million votes were cast. That's nearly two-thirds of the votes cast in the last presidential election.
This third season had been criticized for being biased against quality and against African-Americans, as several talented minority candidates were voted off. And yet, the winner, Fantasia Barrino, was a young black woman described by judge Simon Cowell as "the best contestant we've had in any competition."
American Idol has brought music back to prime time. It is arguably the most positive of the reality shows. But it also brings back the downside of a mass culture. Go, for example, to a ball game and if the national anthem is performed by someone under 30, it will likely entail grandiose note-bending with rhythm 'n' blues stylings, what has become the American Idol style.