"American Idol" is not an amateur talent show. Never has been, never will be.

If you weren't aware of that fact, you just haven't been paying attention.

"Nobody said this is an amateur competition," executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said in a conference call with TV critics.

The "American Idol" rules clearly state that a contestant can't be under contract to a recording company. But plenty of contestants have had contracts that expired before they competed on the show.

"It doesn't matter if you've had a professional contract," Lythgoe said. "Kelly Clarkson had a professional contract. Bo Bice had a deal. Taylor (Hicks) has got records that are out there. This is nothing new."

It's come up from time to time in the previous six seasons, but the story seems to be spinning out of control this year because of the magnitude of the contract one contestant had. It turns out that Carly Smithson had a huge deal at MCA several years ago, and, reportedly, the company spent millions of dollars to produce and promote her CD — which flopped.

While Lythgoe was peppered with question after question about Smithson and other contestants, he dismissed it as a nonstory.

"This is something that people are making up for themselves," he said. "This is something that comes up for some reason every year. ... Well, now, Kelly Clarkson had a contract. From year one, all we say is you have got to be out of contract now. Every year there's been somebody that's had a professional contract or even got an album out there so, no, it doesn't worry us in the slightest."

And if anyone is unhappy that one of the "Idol" finalists is using the show as a second chance at stardom, Lythgoe is unconcerned.

"I don't see any logic in that," he said. "The rules of the competition state you do not have a contract now. Goodness me, if Elvis Presley came back and was out of contract and was (young enough) to participate ... then he would be in the competition."

Lythgoe did his best to dismiss the controversy as "an online backlash" that, when compared to the 30 million viewers and up to 65 million votes "Idol" draws each week, is insignificant.

"I really don't think online, even when you have a complete online focus like votefortheworst(.com), has any effect on the show. There are too many people who vote," he said. "What are you talking about when you say online, a million?"

It's a little harder to accept Lythgoe's assertion that it's no big deal, however, because he was less than truthful when asked if Smithson's past would be revealed on the air.

"We have," he said. "We've shown her when she first came back in the day to now and done that whole issue."

Even giving Lythgoe — who is both a likable guy and a fine TV producer — every benefit of the doubt, that just wasn't true. Other than references to Smithson auditioning two years ago (when work visa problems kept the Irish woman off the show) and oblique references about her past lack of success in the recording industry, there has been no indication of her big-time, failed contract.

Even if you argue that it wouldn't be fair to Smithson to make her story widely known on the TV show — it might hurt her chances of doing well in the voting by viewers — it doesn't seem particularly smart to lie to journalists about it.

If it's not a big deal, why not tell the truth?

Because "American Idol" is a TV show. Like a lot of "reality" shows, it tells stories. And it's not as good a story if an "American Idol" finalist had a big-time recording contract.

But the whole thing does seem to be more a matter of degree than anything else. The controversy over Smithson isn't so much because she had a deal, it's because of the size of that deal.

"She's not breaking any rules of the competition," Lythgoe said.

No, she's not.

And "American Idol" is not an amateur competition. Not that there's anything wrong with that fact.

It's just something to keep in mind if you watch.

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