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TV Preview: 'American Idol' thrives on harsh sniping

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

ABC's summer documentary series -- "Boston 24/7," "Houston Medical" and "State v." -- arrived pretty much DOA in the Nielsen ratings. NBC's reality shows ("Dog Eat Dog," "Spy TV" and "Crime & Punishment") are doing significantly better. But Fox's "American Idol: The Search for a Superstar" is the unqualified buzz-generating hit of the summer TV season.

"American Idol:
The Search for a Superstar"

WHEN: 9:30 tonight on Fox.

JUDGED BY: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson.


Two episodes the first week of its broadcast ranked in the Top 20 for the week and did even better in key demographics. Last week, ratings for its Tuesday show rose.

The WB's "Popstars" came and went without causing much of a stir. Same for ABC's "Making the Band." But "American Idol" is a success, largely because it combines the ethos of "Star Search" with the cruelty of "Weakest Link" as judges give withering reviews to would-be singing sensations.

It's probably best not to make any comparison between the most vocal judge and "Weakest Link" host Anne Robinson. British record producer Simon Cowell has no trouble dishing out his opinions to "American Idol" contestants, and he's happy to say he's not a fan of "Weakest Link" or its host. Hasn't met her, doesn't want to.

"She comes over here, this awful woman dressed in black like a ghastly, sadistic schoolteacher," Cowell said in a phone interview Monday. "I hate her and I hate her show because it's just an act."

Cowell, who also dresses in black sometimes, has gotten a reputation as Evil Simon that's only compounded by the show's obsequious, audience-pandering hosts.

Cowell was the show's preordained breakout judge; narration in the premiere referred to him as the "acid-tongued star" of the original "Pop Idol," which was a huge hit in England when it premiered last year.

Never mind that he sits next to two other judges -- music industry veteran Randy Jackson and American recording star Paula Abdul, whose languishing career could get a much-needed boost from this show -- Simon Cowell is the show's most important character, perhaps more valuable than the ultimate winner. People tune in to hear the singing, but they really watch to see how Cowell will react.

"That was terrible, I mean just awful," he told a contestant in the first episode. When Jackson suggests she take singing lessons, Simon dismisses the advice. "You have to have a talent to progress it. I don't believe Cassandra has a singing talent. She's completely wasting her money. Sorry."

To another singer: "My advice would be if you want to pursue a career in the music business, don't."

And another: "Did you really believe you could become the American Idol? Well, then, you're deaf."

Cowell has little regard for his fellow judges, too. If his prickly on-air relationship with Abdul is an act, it's one he's happy to continue in an interview.

"What you're seeing on TV is faked because I'm trying to make it look like I like her. One of these days I might say what I really feel," he said. "Randy's OK, Paula's a pain in the ass. She's just one of those irritating people. I agree with some of what she says, I disagree with a hell of a lot of what she says. I keep my time with her to a minimum."

"American Idol" airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. and Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. through the first week of September, except for a pre-emption the second week of July. Tuesday nights the singers perform, the judges give their marks and viewers call a toll-free phone number to vote for their favorite. The results are announced on Wednesdays as hosts Brian Dunkleman and the goofy Ryan Seacrest, with help from the judges, try to draw out the drama as long as possible.

That the judges have a say before viewers vote may influence the contest, Cowell acknowledged, but it cuts both ways.

"Kelly, this girl from New York with big hair, was a favorite to get through to the final 10, but I raised an issue the public might have picked up on. I said she was a good singer, but not as good as Whitney Houston and she did a karaoke performance."

But he also eviscerated Jim, an audience favorite whose parents are deaf, who did get enough votes to advance in the competition.

"People deemed me to be bullying of Jim and I think they said, 'We'll show Simon.' Whatever you say, you never know what the outcome will be."

He's particularly interested in the results of audience voting for the contestants who performed on last night's show.

"One of them doesn't look good and another looks amazing. The uglier one has a better voice than the good-looking one, so it will be interesting to see how the public reacts to that."

Cowell said American contestants are more media-savvy than their British counterparts, though he's disgusted by their support of one another.

"All of this pretend hugging, it's [bleep]. These people should hate each other's guts. Why should they want another contestant to do well? They must be thinking, 'I'd better hug him, the camera is on me.' It's unbelievable to watch."

Cowell was also displeased two weeks ago when many of the 50 finalists failed to prepare properly for the audition.

"The object of this competition is not to be mean to the losers but to find a winner," Cowell said. "The process makes you mean because you get frustrated. Kids turn up unrehearsed, wearing the wrong clothes, singing out of tune and you can either say, 'Good job,' and patronize them or tell them the truth, and sometimes the truth is perceived as mean."

The saying, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" doesn't apply to "American Idol," because, Cowell said, he didn't force anyone to audition.

"It's ironic, when you work in this section of the music industry, before the show, people say, 'Oh, anyone could be a pop star. You've got the machines in the studio, it doesn't take talent.' Yes it does. And then when you show the reality of it, people say, 'Oh, you're mean.' Whatever you do, you can't win."

So he's just misunderstood?

"I am poor, misunderstood Simon," he said. "I'm really the nice one, and no one gets it yet, but they will."

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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