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Published June 28, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

Oil isn't Americans' only addiction. The citizens of this great land are also hooked on "American Idol." No other television show comes close to exerting the hold this program has on the viewing public. When spring brings the season finale, tens of millions across the U.S. are left shaking uncontrollably, drooling on themselves and desperate for relief from withdrawal symptoms.

Television executives know this. For most of them, the phenomenon of "Idol" is a good news/bad news proposition. As long as the show is on the air, nothing can touch it in the ratings. It averages nearly 30 million viewers per episode. Programming professionals who need to schedule any show against it refer to it as the "Death Star." That's the bad news.

The good news for broadcasters is that as soon as the program goes off the air, it leaves a massive vacuum in its wake. Suddenly a nation of talent-contest junkies is up for grabs. Nobody believes they're going to take the place of the real thing, but everybody wants to hook as much of its audience as they can as quickly as they can, and feed the need just long enough to make up some of that revenue they lost to the monster. It's the TV equivalent of methadone.

At least, some of it is methadone. Most of it is more like a flat can of Pabst with a cigarette butt or two dropped in. Nope, there's not a lot of good stuff on the street this summer. Hard-up "Idol" fans are going to have to survive on programming that's not just inferior but, in many cases, downright weird.

Most of the population is going to mainline as much "America's Got Talent" as it can. The show's not merely a calculated "Idol" fix; it's a fix calculated by the star of "American Idol" himself, Simon Cowell. He's a wily one, that Cowell. It's not enough for him to make millions presiding over the most popular and influential broadcast of our time; he also wants to make millions filling the vacuum it leaves behind when it's off the air. Brilliant. The one bugaboo with his evil scheme: The show blows like Katrina on steroids.

I've seen audience free-for-alls on "The Jerry Springer Show" with more entertainment value. They should've called it "Freak Show." Or "America's Got Emotional Problems." Where to even begin. The competition debuted last Wednesday on NBC. It airs twice a week and is hosted by Regis Philbin. The grand prize is $1 million. Problem A: the celebrity judges -- Brandy, David Hasselhoff and mandatory Brit-wiseass Piers Morgan, introduced as a "renowned journalist." Together they have barely the IQ of William Hung. None of them appears to have shown up for rehearsals, and Hasselhoff behaves as if he tippled a few too many before airtime.

The show is pure chaos. I've never watched a major television production of this type on which the people in charge have so little grip on the rules. The contest operates "Gong Show"-style. Each judge has a buzzer he or she can use to stop a contestant's audition. The way it's supposed to work is that one hopeful after another comes on stage and does whatever. Afterwards, the judges are supposed to vote on whether the contestant is eliminated or allowed to move on to the next show.

What happens instead is that the three engage in an embarrassing power struggle to determine who will emerge as the alpha-judge. They interrupt and speak over one another -- especially the two guys. They bicker and childishly press each other's buzzers when they want someone booted, like it's all a game they couldn't be bothered to take seriously.

Problem B: the contestants. We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The talent pool isn't limited to aspiring singers but has been opened up -- way up -- to include anyone from aspiring drag queens, finger snappers and nose flutists to aspiring animal acts, stripping seniors and rapping grannies. And the skills on display here aren't the oddest thing about this hootenanny. That would be the often rude and adversarial behavior contestants display toward the trio who hold their fates in their hands.

It was strange to watch a gonged performer snap at Brandy, "How many hits do you have out right now?" It was even stranger to look on as a gonged, disgruntled juggler barked at Morgan, "You don't have any idea what you're talking about. You don't know anything about juggling!" The strangest sight of all? Morgan backing down and agreeing to give the guy a second chance on the following week's show. Whether any of these people actually takes the grand prize, it's safe to say the terrorists have won.

The public certainly hasn't, as a quick scan of Cowell's competition will confirm: Let's see, you've got ABC's "Master of Champions," which kicked off last Thursday. Once again, light on singers, heavy on oddball acts such as blindfolded foot archers, extreme unicyclists and interpretive pizza tossers. When did reality TV turn into a Fellini movie?

"So You Think You Can Dance" has been running on Fox for a while now. I can't stand to watch long enough to gauge how thoroughly awful this is, so you're on your own. Ditto with the network's "Hell's Kitchen." What's frying that blowhard's fanny, anyway?

Starting July 5, CBS' "Rock Star: Supernova" takes us on another search for a lead singer, this time for a make-believe band made up of Motley Crüe's Tommy Lee, Metallica's Jason Newsted and Gilby Clarke of Guns N' Roses. The Fox Reality Channel gets into the act with an elimination entry called "Reality Remix." The Gospel Music Channel will offer "Gospel Dream," which I take to be "American Idol" with cowboy hats, and the makers of "The One: Making a Music Star" (ABC) will follow 11 contestants as they matriculate through a music academy. The question is, will anyone else?

Yes, stars will be born this summer, from one end of the dial to the other: On "I Want to Be a Soap Star" (SOAPnet), "Looking for Stars" (appropriately enough, on Starz) -- even on HGTV, where America's most talented interior decorator will be crowned on (I'm not making this up) "Design Star." Reading this, perhaps you're thinking the talent-show frenzy has gone as far as a merciful God could possibly allow. How, then, do you explain "Dancing Pet Stars" (Animal Planet)? Swing-dancing dogs: one of the signs of the apocalypse, I'm pretty sure.

And it gets worse. The music-television network Fuse recently premiered something called "Pants-Off Dance-Off," on which contestants ranging from schoolteachers to senior citizens -- you can't make old people keep their clothes on anymore! -- strip to music. TV Guide took one look and declared it "the dumbest show on television."

Now there's a title for which there is serious competition.