Last night we said good-bye to Sanjaya Malakar. Some of you cheered and are happy he’s finally gone. Some of you are sad to see him go – even if you didn’t actually think he deserved to be the Idol. As for me…I think he did an amazing job of keeping his spirits up and also keeping us entertained (not always with his singing) under some really tough circumstances – especially considering he’s only 17. But I must admit I’m also glad to see him finally move on. The entertainment value of the phenomenon had run its course and it was time to get back to the show.

But what exactly is the show? Is it as pure as some loyal fans make it out to be? This is a reality show after all, first and foremost designed to entertain. And also…let’s face it…designed to create stars guaranteed top selling CDs by the built-in audience. Lord knows not all the Idols are so talented that they would have risen to these sales levels and adulation without the commercial nature of the franchise that’s spinning them out. Basically, we root for them and because we root for them we begin to love them and when we begin to love them, we want to buy their products. And so, the clever show reels us in and manufactures not only a star but a consumer fan base. (As if the music industry hasn’t manufactured stars before.)

That idea of Idol’s producers unfairly manipulating us to embrace manufactured sometimes talent-challenged idols is some of what was behind the whole Vote for the Worst movement. But the people who started Vote for the Worst also feel we’re being played in another way, with the producers purposefully including some clinkers among the finalists to keep it fun. So Vote for the Worst (VFTW) decided to play too. According to their website:

“Many good people are turned away and many bad singers are kept around to see Simon, Paula, and Randy so that America will be entertained.

Now why do the producers do this? It’s simple: American Idol is not about singing at all, it’s about making good reality TV and enjoying the cheesy, guilty pleasure of watching bad singing. We agree that a fish out of water is entertaining, and we want to acknowledge this fact by encouraging people help the amusing antagonists stick around. VFTW sees keeping these contestants around as a golden opportunity to make a more entertaining show.”

And so, there is now a counter-movement that has arisen as part of the whole American Idol thing. And people like Howard Stern, with his own “this is crappy music” point of view, joined in to stick it to the oh-so-clever minds behind the Idol phenomenon. And the counter-movement became a manufactured commerciality of its own, since the VFTW site now makes money for the guys who run it. (Stern always makes money.)

I heard David Letterman interview VFTW founder, Dave Della Terza and when I listened to what Mr. Della Terza said about punching holes in the big American Idol hot air balloon, for a moment I thought “You know, that makes some sense. It really is a manufactured process that keeps rolling out winners as well as big cash for the producers and associates.”

And truth is, this whole Sanjaya thing brought the show tons of publicity and lots of eager voters. So VFTW actually wound up helping American Idol even more. But the real sticking point has been “What if the VFTW candidate – up until now Sanjaya – wins Idol?” Would that really be a tragedy considering the whole thing is just entertainment anyway?

And then I thought about it some more. There are people – millions of them – who really love getting lost in the whole American Idol season and actually care about the best person getting picked. Like the way we care about the World Series or The Super Bowl. It’s not that the winner is really always the best – but people like to feel part of something exciting and, in this case, they like knowing they helped make it happen. And even though this is reality TV and sometimes manipulated (yes…all reality TV is manipulated), the fans buy into the established rules and are willing to accept them. But Vote for the Worst movement was hijacking their pleasure and changing the rules. And for millions of people, that really sucked. It’s like having the World Series begin and then sneaking new rules into the game in a way that officials can’t control. While it’s a cool idea on one level, it really winds up killing the fun for millions. Even if you are adding new fun for others, that doesn’t seem like a fair thing to do to the people for whom the show provides so much pleasure.

For me, when things feel crappy in my own life, I love to just kick back and tune into one of my favorite reality shows and get deliciously lost in the admittedly manufactured reality. I don’t care that I’m being sucked in by the editing or the casting – that’s what TV is all about. But to be looking forward to this mini-vacation from a harsher reality and then have the rug pulled right out from under you – basically having your show kidnapped and replaced by someone else’s idea of what should be going on – really does suck.

And so, in the end, despite all its cleverly manufactured parts, Idol deserves to be left to do what it does best. Free speech is cool and I’m 100% for it, but what about fair play? Do you really have to make it your goal to take away what others look forward to so much? Maybe the talented people behind Vote for the Worst should create its own engaging show, rather than just piggy-backing off the success of Idol and winding up as the spoiler. So while I supported Sanjay’s right to compete and never blamed him, I am grateful that, in the end, the clever marionetteers pulling those Internet strings weren’t able to take away the fun that is Idol – manufactured commercial warts and all.