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Reality TV: Judging the judges

After last week’s dustup on ”Dancing With the Stars,” we ask the experts: How mean do you have to be?

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The size and dimensions of a flightless bird may not be relevant in a ballroom, but that didn’t stop judge Bruno Tonioli from comparing a tuxedo-clad Chaz Bono to one during a recent episode of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. ”It was like watching a cute little penguin,” Tonioli quipped before helping to boot Bono, who used his ouster on Oct. 25 to complain about the show’s loose-lipped judges. ”I got a lot of references…about things that would indicate the fact that I’m overweight,” Bono told Good Morning America. ”If you want to critique my dancing and give me some constructive advice…that would be great. But I don’t really know how to be less penguinish, and so I kind of took offense to that.”

He may have a point. While Tonioli isn’t the first reality-show judge to compare a contestant to an animal — Simon Cowell once likened a youth’s singing on American Idol to the sound of a cat being thrown off a skyscraper — his comment was at the very least pointless, and at worst insensitive. But was it wrong? The question seems to come up every time a reality-show judge takes a tough and often unpopular stance to address what he or she believes was a substandard performance. Outspoken judges like Cowell, America’s Got Talent‘s Piers Morgan, and Top Chef‘s former judge Toby Young have long been vilified for making mincemeat out of contestants, but they might argue they’re just doing their jobs. ”People have to remember these are entertainment shows,” says Morgan, who will resume production on AGT in February. ”Yes, there is a big prize at stake and millions are watching. But people who enter these shows are entering an entertainment talent competition. And with that comes a high expectation that you are going to be judged in a way that will entertain people. You don’t want boring judges.”

But you do want accurate ones. On the same night that Tonioli delivered the penguin zinger, Maksim Chmerkovskiy took issue with judge Len Goodman‘s comment that his rumba with Hope Solo was their ”worst dance of the season.” (It earned a mere 20 out of 30 points.) The performance was dreadful — Solo posed more than she danced, all while doing it in an unfortunate pair of flat boots — but Chmerkovskiy still questioned Goodman’s credentials and called him an ”idiot” after the show. Now who’s being mean? ”Our judges have the toughest job on TV because they have to make that assessment in, like, 30 seconds and put down their scores,” argues DWTS exec producer Conrad Green. ”It’s not a perfect science. But I think all of these guys do try very hard because, at the end of the day, it’s their reputations on the line.”

Ironically, that’s exactly what the judges of The Voice were worried about before committing to the NBC singing show, which will return for its second season in February. Celebrity judges like Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green were assured that they would never have to utter a harsh word because the format requires them to actually sweet-talk the contestants (all of whom are quite good). Says proud exec producer Mark Burnett, ”The last thing the world needed was another singing show in which someone’s put up who is not very good, only to get ripped down.” Still, The Voice never managed to work its 12.6 million fans into a lather during its first season, unlike DWTS, which is still making a lot of noise while attracting 16.8 million viewers in its 13th season. And in the highly competitive world of network TV, that’s what really matters in the end. ”If you don’t have controversy in these shows, you’re not doing something right,” says Fox’s head of reality programming, Mike Darnell. ”They should be interesting, and the judges should be opinionated. That’s part of what makes these shows tick.” —Lynette Rice

Our TV Critic’s Take

Ken Tucker gives the judges from four current reality shows a taste of their own medicine

Dancing With the Stars

Len Goodman

At his best, he’s not one to mince words. He’s erratic, though — sometimes passionately engaged, sometimes prone to giving contestants the overgenerous benefit of his doubts. B

Carrie Ann Inaba

More a cheerleader than a discerner of talent, Inaba is positioned as the ”nice” judge. But being the middle ground is never much fun. B-

Bruno Tonioli

Overemoting is his shtick, but bubbling beneath his burbling are some sharp observations and constructive advice. B+

Work of Art

Jerry Saltz

What he lacks in TV flash, he more than makes up for with pithy critiques. A

Bill Powers

He’s dashing and enthusiastic but lurches between strong opinions and bland approvals. B-

China Chow

Host and judge Chow comes off as hesitant, gauging which way the others are leaning. C

The X Factor

Simon Cowell

The grump-daddy of reality competitions, Cowell has reined himself in here, dispensing less sarcasm and goading his fellow judges into being more voluble. B+

Paula Abdul

Currently not crazy, Paula is gushing over everyone. Her reunion with Simon is proving disappointing. C+

L.A. Reid

As sharp as his suits, Reid distinguishes between talent, execution, and commercial viability with a swiftness that explains why he’s a successful exec. A-

Nicole Scherzinger

She’s lucky Christina Aguilera is on The Voice. Otherwise, Scherzinger would be the most self-absorbed, useless judge on TV. D-

Top Chef

Tom Colicchio

His measured judgments are the standards against which everyone adjusts his or her own. A-

Padma Lakshmi

A force of personality, host and judge Lakshmi has a purring voice that can distract from her cuttingly strong opinions. B

Gail Simmons

The perky Simmons’ takes on dishes are both professional and down-to-earth. B+

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