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American Idol sticks to the formula, dawg

The search for the world's next great pop star begins anew each January. Is anybody watching?

Presumably, given the return of American Idol (Fox, CTV, 8 p.m.), which lurches into its 11th season tonight with the traditional two-hour opener.

The show isn't the ratings behemoth it was in its early years, but it's still impossible to ignore a program that averages upwards of 14 million U.S. viewers each broadcast, along with another two million or so Canadians along for the ride.

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And no doubt you've already seen the new American Idol promos, which aired incessantly during Sunday's Golden Globes broadcast and over and over on Fox's NFL playoff coverage.

The main American Idol spot is a bit unsettling, for my taste: It opens with two fresh-scrubbed teens – one playing a guitar, the other warbling away – in what appears to be a public park, presumably situated in Everytown, USA.

Suddenly, the kids are rendered agog when they see Idol judge Randy Jackson casually strolling down the street. Just like a regular person, dog. The kids tag along and are joined by fellow judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, the latter wearing a ladies' housecoat, I think.

Host Ryan Seacrest joins the procession, by now seemingly made up of several thousand people, and everyone ends up at a theatre where the marquee reads: American Idol Auditions Today. Fade out to sweeping synthesizer music and the words, "The Incredible Journey Begins." Chills, I tell you.

One hopes that anyone starting out on that journey realizes there's a pretty short list of American Idol winners generating much activity on iTunes these days. To date, the only winners whose careers have soared are Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.

In reality, the American Idol finalists have fared far better in the music business. Witness the careers of Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry and Katharine McPhee, who combines her vocal talents with surprisingly capable acting abilities on the upcoming NBC series Smash.

But as the franchise moves into its second decade, singing has actually become secondary on American Idol, which commences its four-month stay in prime time starting with tonight's audition episode. As always, expect the most screen time to go to those singers with the worst voices.

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Back in the day, viewers used to watch American Idol to see Simon Cowell coolly eviscerate contestants with his comments, or Paula Abdul fumble her words.

Today, viewers are drawn more to a sameness and predictability. They return for the rambling diatribes of Tyler and to count how many scarves he wears on any given night. They watch for the overemoting of Lopez, who is often reduced to tears by the simplest decision.

And many viewers faithfully tune into American Idol each week to see Randy Jackson, probably because he still calls people "dog."

The current trio of judges are, in fact, among the highest-paid personalities on television – J-Lo reportedly pulls in $20-million (U.S.) a season – and for good reason. They are why Idol continues to thrives over other TV singing contests.

Can anyone even name the judges on The Sing Off, The Voice or (excepting Simon Cowell) Fox's newish version of The X Factor? Can't do it, dog.

John Doyle returns Monday.

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