American Idol is facing its biggest challenge. Conquering the summer TV ratings was small potatoes compared to what Fox now must do. This was, after all, not just an talent show — although it was that. The premise of the show is not just that it can produce a winner, but that it can manufacture a new Britney Spears. If the producers of the show succeed, they will have created a kind of show-biz star in a test tube.

This is not to say Idol‘s winner is without talent. Kelly Clarkson may not be as polished or well-endowed as Britney, but I’ll take her blues-belting voice over the squeaks that La Spears produces anytime. And most of the young stars today, Spears included, are products of hype and production much more than great talent. In fact, and this may be heresy, you can go back to the days of Fabian Forte to realize marketing and good looks are more important than talent. But never has a TV show or, for that matter, a network, so boldly put itself out on a limb by proclaiming that it will produce an American idol.

The network hype may hurt Clarkson as much as help her. Consider that for a girl who can belt out Respect, Kelly will be saddled with the musical mediocrity forced upon her as her first single. The song is a cross between the kitschy theme of the Miss America Pageant and the music used to close out network coverage of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Clarkson has the raw talent of a young Ethel Merman. Think of Merman singing the clich�-ridden junk that Kelly was forced to record instead of There’s No Business Like Show Business, and you get the idea.

Should Clarkson’s single flop on the Billboard charts, Fox could come out of this looking pretty silly. But then maybe I’m naive. With the hype surrounding Idol, maybe there’s no way for Kelly to fail. The people who control the music we hear on radio stations today will frantically be trying to push her into some precise category such as country classic, new country, rock, easy listening, etc., etc. Of course she could always wind up as a "crossover" artist, which means someone whose songs actually can be played in more than one format in the same market.

What you can be sure of is that Clarkson will be geared toward the market where she will make the most money, regardless of her tastes or singing talents. In other words, she’ll be singing more schmaltz than blues because chances are you’re a lot more familiar with Celine Dion than Susan Tedeschi.

There are certain to be other changes in store for Kelly Clarkson if she is truly to become a singing idol. Although Kelly is cute, she’s no Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, the aforementioned Britney or even that marvel of modern cosmetic surgery, Cher. And make no mistake about it, an idol’s abs are more important than her voice. Anyone think Ella Fitzgerald could become an idol in today’s music industry?

Along with the cosmetic changes will come the huge production numbers that mean Kelly’s voice will further recede into the background. The dance steps that will show off the bare midriff (better flatten that tummy, Kelly), the big techno beat, the score of writhing dancers and flashing lights all will become equally or more important than the way Kelly can belt out a tune. Could Judy Garland have made it as an idol today?

The ultimate challenge will be America’s short attention span. Will Idol follow the path of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? If Idol is cancelled after a couple of seasons, will anyone care about Kelly Clarkson? Will she be the human version of Regis Philbin’s dark shirts and matching ties that are already yesterday’s flavor in the fashion industry? Television has a voracious appetite that devours you and spits you out as yesterday’s refuse. There will be the rounds of late-night shows for a while. Hell, even Kato still gets a TV gig now and then. But to become an American idol conjures up images of the greats of show business. There is a difference between an idol and a minor celebrity of the moment.

That’s the threshold where Kelly Clarkson stands. Will the artifice of the industry allow her talent to become more than the answer to a future question in Trivial Pursuit?

Tom Cardella can be heard before and after the Eagles-Cowboys game Sunday on 94-FM WYSP.