SANJAYA MALAKAR STILL AMERICA'S IDOL

American Idol's Sanjaya Malakar keeps on going !

Sanjaya Malakar has lived to see another round of "American Idol", prompting a passionate debate over whether America's most watched TV show has lost its credibility or unwittingly created another media superstar. Malakar, 17, was easily voted through by the public to the final 9 of the 6th season of the singing competition on Wednesday after becoming one of the most-talked about people on U.S. television. In the past three weeks, Malakar moved a 13 year-old girl to tears on national television, inspired a one woman hunger strike, smiled through vicious comments from Idol judges and delivered almost as many different hair-dos as off-key notes. Far from being booted off the show by the 30 million strong "Idol" TV audience, which eliminates one of the contestants each week, Malakar appears to be going from strength to strength. Even British judge Simon Cowell, who quipped last month that he would quit if Malakar won the competition, appears to have succumbed. "Sanjaya, I don't think it matters anymore what we say...I think you are in your own universe and if people like you, good luck," said Cowell after Malakar's startling Mohawk hairdo overshadowed another less than stellar singing performance on Tuesday. Maverick Web site www.votefortheworst.com (VFTW) claims much of the credit for "saving" Malakar on what it calls "America's largest karaoke contest." The Web site's mission, picked up and promoted by radio shock jock Howard Stern, is to "have fun with 'American Idol' and embrace its suckiness" by encouraging people to vote en masse for the worst contestants. But popular culture expert Robert Thompson said he doubted Stern's audience had the patience to negotiate the famously busy signals on "Idol" phone lines. "Sanjaya is a really cute kid with a unique look and an incredibly dreamy smile that can get thirty 12-year old girls to vote a million times apiece on speed dial," said Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, in Syracuse, New York. "I don't think he injures its credibility at all. 'American Idol' has never been about a scientific way of producing the very best vocalist of our time. It has been a silly, fun, really well-produced talent competition and you never quite know what's going to happen," Thompson said. Some die hard "Idol" fans, who have seen past contestants find success at the Grammys, the Oscars and the Country Music Awards, were not so convinced. "Faithful watchers will stop watching if Sanjaya is not sent home. The whole purpose of this show is being undermined by a lot of people who have lost sight of (or more likely couldn't care less about) the ultimate goal....for the BEST SINGER to win!!!!," wrote one fan who used the name Kshenk on the www.americanidol.com message board.

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