Welcome back to Fooling the Idols. I'm not Ryan Seacrest, but I play him online, and we're here to check up on the final three performers as they relax ahead of tonight's showdown with a few of their favorite movies.

Funky chicken
First up is Beatboxer Blake and his creative aura. He's off to the nearest Blockbuster (NYSE:BBI) store to trade in a couple of Total Access mailers for in-store rentals. Now that is a funky move by Blockbuster.

The man and the plan share a few features. Blake is quite obviously the weakest pure singer left standing, and Blockbuster is the least efficient entertainment provider, with all the physical assets weighing it down. But, they both have some moxie and dare to be different.

In Blockbuster's case, that difference is both the company's biggest strength and its strongest threat. Total Access is bringing in tons of new subscribers to Blockbuster Online, which is taking on an increasingly heavy load of expectations for the entire company's future.

On that tack, it makes sense to push for maximum growth at any cost -- at least for a while. But it's an expensive proposition. Total Access is so attractive because it's such a great value for customers. Conversely, every free in-store rental bleeds the store franchise just a little bit. A few million of those cuts can add up to significant damage.

The question isn't whether Blockbuster will raise prices, reduce the free rental benefits, or perhaps both. It's how long the company can wait before doing it. The balance sheet is in shambles already, and this loss leader operation can't run forever -- no matter how funky and fresh.

Fool of all trades
How about Melinda Doolittle, then? Her all-around great voice but lack of big-time star power is a fine match for Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) and its Unbox video download service.

Amazon can attack several markets with some success, but its true strength lies closer to running a shipping operation than to download services. Likewise, Melinda would do better if she didn't have to sing pop and country, though she's OK at both of those.

Unbox might do better if you could burn the downloaded content to a standard DVD, or if these DRM-shackled versions were at least a bit cheaper than the full retail versions of the same movies. Yes, the TiVo (NASDAQ:TIVO) delivery option is nice, but those boxes have a limited storage capacity. What to do when your hard drives fill up?

Amazon has been selling physical DVDs for years, giving it a foot in the door with the various studios for license negotiations. But maybe it's just too early for a pure-play download service to work today. Unbox and Melinda can have great futures ahead of them, but it will take some hard work and proper coaching to get there.

Focus, focus, focus!
Here's Jordin Sparks, checking her Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) queue on the sly. This is the true specialist in the field. Great in her comfort zone, Jordin can unravel when facing unfamiliar styles. Likewise, Netflix does one thing -- online video rentals -- but does it with sustained excellence.

You know you have a strong operation when you can beat mighty Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) into submission, as Netflix did a couple of years ago. Management brings an engineer's mindset to running the business, and every effort is made to improve usability and operational efficiency. None of its competitors can match that focus.

However, as Jordin may need to show off a new side of her talents to make it to the finals, Netflix has to show that it can hang in an all-digital world too. The company is off to a promising start with its "Watch It Now" feature, and there's talk of some sort of set-top box or perhaps a video on demand deal with cable and satellite carriers to get those digital flicks onto our TV sets.

The massive database of movie ratings and rental histories is the ace in Netflix's pocket. A superior recommendation engine could be the difference-maker that sets the company apart from a sea of competitors in the coming years -- Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has already started selling films through iTunes, and the movie studios themselves have been kicking around the idea for years. MovieLink and CinemaNow spring to mind, but those services each have issues of their own to work through.

Foolish Finale
This is where your vote counts, America. It's up to the folks at home who stays and who goes, both in tonight's singing bonanza, and in the fledgling video rental wars. Just remember -- this is not the end. Not even the beginning of the end. No, we're merely looking at the end of the beginning.

Seafake -- out!

Foolish Fandango:

Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick, and the Amazon, Netflix, and TiVo trifecta all got the nod from our Motley Fool Stock Advisor team. Read all about the Gardner brothers' entertainment keiretsu with a free 30-day trial subscription. No late fees, no restocking charges.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund is a Netflix shareholder but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. He has spent inordinate amounts of time on video rental research. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure is ... safe! You can have a seat.