Last week, nearly 23 million Americans were glued to their TV sets for that most critical of news announcements: Who would win the karaoke contest?

I am talking about “American Idol,” a TV show that began as a half-hour of nastiness and somehow, by the end of the summer, was dubbed important enough to go two hours, lead the national newscasts and have its winner jetted overnight, first class, from the “Tonight Show” in L.A. to the “Today” show in New York.

Wow. Who knew singing “It’s Raining Men” could get you all that?

Now, I know a lot of people loved this show, but please, come on folks, say you were bored, say there was nothing else on, but don’t buy into what the breathless, brain-dead “Entertainment Tonight”-types are now crowing: that this was somehow a landmark show and a landmark moment. Call it what it was. A bunch of star-hungry kids living in a house on Mulholland Drive and trying to become famous.

In that way, “American Idol” was not much different from “Survivor,” “Fear Factor” or any other thinly disguised reality show that tells you it is about some crucial test of inner strength when it is actually a bunch of hot babes trying to get on a sitcom.

By the way, the finalists in “American Idol” are already owned by the creators, who will produce CDs, books and even a feature film. This after the photo shoots, wardrobe selection, cross-country promotion and multi-city tour.

Tell me again how this was a fun little talent contest.

Cause and effect

So why did so many people watch “American Idol”? You can ask sociologists, psychologists or tarot card readers. Each will have a theory. “Viewers identify with youth.” “We like overcoming odds.” “It’s the rags-to-riches tradition.” Baloney. I’ll tell you why people watched: They were told to watch. This country has become a place where there are no natural moments anymore. They are manufactured. When something gets hot, a domino effect of publicity falls into place. People magazine gushes over it. E! Entertainment moves it up the chart. CNN reports it, and the morning shows begin tracking it, so as not to be left behind. USA Today blows it up on the cover.

Soon, you can’t go anywhere without some media source asking “Who does America like, Justin or Kelly?” And being people who hate feeling left out, we jump like dogs through a hoop — and land on the bandwagon.

A short shelf life

Now, before you get out your poison pens, understand whom you should be angry with. Not me. I have nothing against the young singers who are trying to make it. It doesn’t even bother me that their talent level is only average, that you can hear better singing at many small clubs right here in Detroit by people who simply may not look as good in a halter top.

Those you should be angry with are the Svengalis who are getting rich through your devotion. When 23 million people watch a show, the dollars rain down. Simon Crowell, the British judge who specializes in insulting people, just inked a major new deal. A second “Idol” will air in a few months, in a race to beat the mimics. RCA is rushing the winner’s first single, “A Moment Like This,” into stores by next week — next week? — just days after the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11. That ought to show the terrorists our priorities are intact.

In time, faster than you think, “American Idol” will disappear. You need only recall “Weakest Link” and the British lady who’s now back insulting her own countrymen.

But the lesson of “Idol” is less rags-to-riches than the death of natural moments. Everything is so packaged, marketed, oversold and overhyped that by the time it reaches the end, you are sick of being told how important it is.

“What will fill the void now that ‘American Idol’ is over?” a USA Today editorial asked.

Here’s an idea. Try a karaoke bar. At least they serve beer.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” airs 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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