American Idol, like so much reality programming, is a British import -- over there, it's ''Pop Idol,'' masterminded by Simon Fuller, the cad who perpetrated the Spice Girls. But Idol's premise is as American -- and as old -- as Ted Mack's ''Original Amateur Hour,'' which first aired in 1948: Bring on a raft of young performers, let the viewers decide who'll win, and hand them a prize. Ted Mack doled out scholarships; ''Idol'' promises the graduation gift that matters most these days: stardom, in the form of a record contract.
Before viewers can phone in votes for someone like Tamyra Gray, who makes ''And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going'' sound more like a threat than a manifesto, the contestants must be evaluated by three judges. Singer/dancer/cheerleader/camp counselor Paula Abdul and record producer Randy Jackson (so obscure he's often ID'd in the press as ''no relation to Michael'') give bland, banal brush-offs, but U.K. record exec Simon Cowell is Kingsley Amis in a muscle shirt, viperish in his stinging dismissals (''He looks like a corpse, and he is sooo corrrny'') that can reduce American contestants -- their emotions soft and tingly sensitive from lifetimes of soothing, Oprah-fied, ''constructive'' criticism -- to tears or hurt anger.
Cowell was dubbed Mr. Nasty in the English press; over here, he's more like Mr. Anne Robinson -- his cheeky tweaks are amusing at first, but as the weeks go by they're the show's weakest link. No, strike that: I forgot Idol's hosts, Brian Dunkleman and Ryan Seacrest, gel-tousled dunderheads who exist to look shocked at Cowell's insults, and who repeatedly ask emotionally drained contestants if they'd like an ice-cold can of a certain cola brand that cosponsors the show.
Idol is a shamefully addictive cross between Ed McMahon's old ''Star Search'' and Chuck Barris' hoary, whore-y ''The $1.98 Beauty Show.'' In recent years, America has adopted England's attitude about pop music -- that it's disposable fodder. Over here, we used to speak of singers as ''artists'' with ''authenticity'' and long, nurtured careers. Over there, last week's smash group Westlife gives way to this week's Will Young, the Brit ''Idol'' winner; their hits are jingly junk that everyone goes mad for until the tunes vanish like dust motes after three weeks.
As TV, ''American Idol'' is crazily entertaining; as music, it's dust-mote inconsequential. Whoever survives the show's grueling winnowing-down process (the finale airs Sept. 4) will doubtless be so eager to sell out, his or her recording debut will likely be another piece of corporate product.