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TV Preview: Simon says, and viewers tune in

Sunday, February 09, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Just when I think a television network is stretching its hits too thin -- a la ABC and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- the viewing public surprises me.

"American Idol"

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday; 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Starring: Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul.

Both "Survivor" and "American Idol" started as summer series, programs to watch because they offered something different and because there was little other original programming on the broadcast networks.

Bringing them back in the regular broadcast season might seem foolish, but in both cases, viewers flocked to the sequels, as last month's premiere of the second season of "American Idol" proved.

Now in its fourth week, viewers will select two singers from the second set of eight semi-finalists to advance in the "Idol" competition. By March 5, viewers will have narrowed the field to 10 finalists, with a winner set to be crowned on May 7.

Through it all, we can count on more catty comments from rapscallion judge Simon Cowell, the Brit import who's only good when he's bad, mean or derisive (often times all three). At a press conference last month, Cowell said he held his tongue too much toward the end of the show's first season. He swore never to do that again.

"I would have told Nikki McKibbin to go back to the strip club," Cowell cracked. "I believe you should say what's in your mind, and as I watched her, I thought, 'You are a better stripper than you are a singer.' And I know that sounds rude, but that's what I felt."

Cowell said he prefers to be harshly honest in almost every circumstance. Almost.

"It depends on what you want out of it. If you're on a date and you want to go a certain direction, you're not going to say, 'I hate what you're wearing.' You use your common sense. I've always believed it's better to be honest with people if the situation is relevant."

Before he started raking new contestants over the coals, Cowell and judge Randy Jackson agreed this year's auditions drew a more talented crowd. If you watched the audition shows two weeks ago, that may be difficult to believe.

"The talent's just so, so much better," Jackson said. "It's like the kids didn't believe in the show in the beginning, then came out and said, 'You know what? This thing works. It's one of the best ways for me to get noticed and have it happen for me.' "

Cowell tempered his enthusiasm.

"You can get 5 million people to turn up, and at the end of the day you're going to get three or four who are really, really good, and we have that. And the rest are going to make up the numbers. All that happened because we had 50,000 people turn up. We had 40,000 people who couldn't sing."

Not that they realized it.

"They all believe that they can sing. Either it's a combination of they're deaf, they're insane, I honestly don't know what it is," Cowell said. "I know I can't sing. I've only got to hear myself to prove the point. These people come in and they really, really genuinely believe that they're good."

"I think the term is called tone deaf," Jackson added. "You can't even hear what you're singing. To you, it sounds like Streisand."

Still, Cowell admitted, the judges sometimes get it wrong. He realized this by going back and watching tapes of performances in last summer's episodes.

"When you're sitting in a live theater and everyone's going nuts behind you and they're screaming and shouting, you hear a completely different performance," he said. "There are one or two times where you've said someone was good on the night, then you watched it back on TV and say, 'What the hell am I saying? This is dreadful.' So you've always got the following night to say, 'You know what, I said you were good last night -- I've changed my mind.' "

Cowell said judging "Idol" will never be a perfect science, which is part of the fun. Jackson said he's not sure viewers, who call a toll-free number to vote for their favorites, care what the judges think "because they voted differently from us so many times."

If Cowell and Jackson had their way, contestant Tamyra Gray, eliminated before the final three, would have advanced further. Don't shed too many tears for Tamyra; she's guest starring in four episodes of Fox's "Boston Public" beginning Feb. 17.

Cowell maintains he doesn't get along with fellow judge Paula Abdul, despite the appearance to many that it's all an act.

"If she irritates me, which she probably will, I'll tell her to shut up," Cowell said. "And she'll do the same to me. But it's not something you should be premeditated about. I mean, Randy is just as bad sometimes."

The success of "American Idol" has already spawned a raft of imitators, including a revival of "Star Search" on CBS and even "Pet Idol" on Animal Planet." Cowell has no worries.

"I think 'Pet Idol' is different," Cowell said, getting laughs from an audience of TV critics. "No, I do, because I think there are a lot of talented dogs."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

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