Latest 'Idol' phenomenon: Judges on best behavior

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It's not for nothing that "American Idol" has grown to become a pop culture touchstone and the only series on television that can claim ownership of the descriptor "phenomenon." It's the everyman format. It's the dreadful performers early on and the blossoming talents later on. But it's also those judges: Simon. Paula. Randy. Their interaction is no small part of the formula.

This much was clear Saturday during an "Idol" session on the final day of the two-week Television Critics Assn. winter press tour. There was an antipathy in the air borne not only of a perception of mean-spiritedness during last week's opening installments of "Idol's" sixth season but also the fact that the panel was about 40 minutes late getting started.

Not to worry. The blustery Cowell was on his best behavior during the lively Q&A with scribes, even copping to the fact the tardiness was all his fault.

"I flew in late from London, so I apologize," he said.

Yes, an apology from Mr. Mean himself. Perhaps even more shockingly, Cowell struck something of a contrite stance over the charge that he in particular was picking on certain contestants for their looks rather than merely their singing ability.

"We've never tried to censor this show," Cowell said, "and there are times, trust me, when I watch it back and I just think, God, I wish I hadn't have said that and why do they put it in the show? But … I feel more comfortable being on a show where we are prepared to show the warts as well as the good things. And I think that's why the audience trusts us."

That said, there continues to be rumblings throughout cyberspace in particular that "Idol" is purposefully seeking out people who can't carry a tune for their entertainment value, bringing charges of cruelty and exploitation.

"What we're trying to be on the show, more than anything else, is representative," Cowell stressed. "A lot of the bad singers you are seeing, trust me, there are thousands that didn't make it through. … People do turn up to 'Idol' for real-life auditions and they are terrible. And they don't know it."

Added Jackson: "Do you think William Hung is mad that he came on this show? The guy's made almost a million dollars for being one of the worst singers ever. Do you think he's mad? Are you kidding? He's jumping up and down."

Concluded host Ryan Seacrest: "We don't knock on doors and drag them to audition. They show up."
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