Cathy's World: American Idol

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  July 31, 2002 at 8:54 PM
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LOS ANGELES, July 31 (UPI) -- I hate to side with overpaid network executives against my fellow hardworking hacks, but after watching the quarrel between the execs and the hacks unfold at the latest TV press tour this month, I'd say the execs scored at least several good points. The hacks, alas, did not.

Naturally you'd never know this from the media log-rolling festival that's been going on, particularly in The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

But first, the back story.

A couple of weeks ago, WB founder Jamie Kellner outraged a news conference filled with the usual crowd of mostly middle-aged journalists -- who'd been noting sniffily that the network is aimed at teenagers and young women -- by pointing out that "the 18-to-34 demo is dramatically underrepresented in this room."

Everyone laughed. But to quote that Al Capone line from "The Untouchables" just before he beat someone to death with a baseball bat: "You know, we laugh at something because it's funny, and we laugh because it's true."

Then a few days later, ABC programming chief Susan Lyne annoyed TV reporters and reviewers with her pragmatic response to their complaints about the networks' schlocky new fall lineups.

"Groundbreaking and provocative is not necessarily what the audience is looking for," Lyne said. "TV is what they do after they get home after a long day at work or after being with their kids all day, and it may be something they do with multiple interruptions."

"Something that is overly complex and overly demanding," she added, "may not be what most of our audience is dying to watch."

Boy, is that ever true, I thought. People watch TV for all kinds of reasons, but unlike those who populate the twice-yearly TV press tours to the West Coast, almost never because they're being paid to do it.

Last month, for instance, I watched a lot of TV after getting out of the hospital for some nasty surgery that did not go my way. I suppose I could have spent the time rereading Proust or watching those serious one-hour dramas about lawyers and cops and doctors the TV critics favor.

But the truth is, I doubt any of that would have been nearly as diverting as Fox's schlocky summer lineup.

First came the fabulous "Looking for Love: Bachelorettes In Alaska," a sort of "Survivor" meets "The Dating Game" that concluded a couple of weeks ago. For the record, the show was rather thought-provoking in its own way.

"Desperate women, eligible men!" gushed the announcer during the promos. Why not "Eligible women, desperate men?" It's Alaska, after all.

And why did silly Cecile spend three hours over dinner complaining to Tim 2, her new "man on ice" contestant, about the perfidy of Tim 1, a.k.a. Timmy? "Looking for Love" raised plenty of questions.

Then there was "30 Seconds to Fame," an updated "Gong Show" that premiered this month, complete with a "nose dancer," various rancid subway performers and a few people with actual talent -- like a pair of identical twin tap-dancers.

Finally and especially, there's the ratings juggernaut and pop culture phenomenon "American Idol," which runs through Sept. 4.

All these low-rent reality shows have been highly enjoyable, and I don't regret a moment spent zoning out in front of them. Who cares if they're not "The Sopranos?"

Brian Lowry of The Los Angeles Times, that's who. Viewers' time would be better spent watching HBO than network product, the TV columnist wrote finger-waggingly last week about press tour. Lowry dislikes this event because, among other reasons, Howard Rosenberg of the L.A. Times and Tom Shales of the Washington Post -- "arguably the two most respected" critics -- don't attend.

I guess Lowry has a point, if he's using the phrase "the two most respected" as secret code for "the two most overdue for retirement."

Probably he doesn't mean it that way, though, which is why the arguably most respected Tom Shales mentioned "the ever-astute Brian Lowry" in a column titled -- I am not kidding about this -- "In Defense of My Peeps." ("Peeps" is teenage ghetto talk for "people," in case you're not as wack as Shales.)

Shales blasted network executives for thinking that viewers use television "strictly as a surrogate aquarium or ant farm. They don't watch it, they just have it on and glance at it now and then."

Note to Shales, and to other TV critics who spend a lot of time watching commercial-free screener tapes and very little cooking dinner or folding laundry or sorting through the mail at home: That is EXACTLY how most people watch TV.

Anyway, Lowry had observed in his L.A. Times piece that networks should concentrate on "developing riskier scripts," and that "American Idol" is "barely watchable to anyone over 18."

Again, I suppose the ever-astute Lowry has a point, if by "barely watchable" he means "avidly watched by millions of people."

"'American Idol' has consistently ranked No. 1 in its time period ... across all key demos," Fox entertainment president Gail Berman noted last week. "This summer we are the only major network rallying with 18-to-49-year-old viewers."

Friends, there's a reason for this.

"American Idol" is absolutely riveting TV. If the early contestants were often painfully, fascinatingly bad, these final few are indeed very talented. Still, the critics tsk-tsk predictably about the navel-revealing outfits and the fact that an American Idol cannot be overweight.

British record producer Simon Cowell, one of the three judges and the show's acidic, man-you-love-to-hate de facto star, is unapologetic about this.

"If we were living in a world where your top 10 was full of fat people with great voices, I'd say 'Fantastic,'" he noted at the Fox press conference about one early contestant whom he'd informed was not what an American Idol looks like. "We're not."

"The big problem I have with a lot of the overweight people wasn't the fact that they were overweight," he added. "It was the fact that they were boring."

It should be noted, however, that Fox, network-of-the-people, doesn't always demand everyone be shaped like Britney Spears. The big winner on the premiere episode of "30 Seconds to Fame" was an overweight, middle-aged schoolteacher who belted out a couple of Aretha Franklin songs and took home $25,000.

Anyway, "American Idol" is compelling as much because of its judges as its contestants, whom Cowell doesn't limit himself to insulting. He also shoots poison darts at his much kindlier fellow judges: record producer Randy Jackson and choreographer (and former performer) Paula Abdul.

He stayed in character at the news conference. Was he really about to get in a fight with Jackson in one episode, someone asked, and if so, who would win?

"You know I could take him down," the hefty Jackson responded.

Cowell shrugged and agreed: "Who wants to pick a fight with Mount Kilimanjaro?"

In interviews, Cowell has been quoted saying ungentlemanly things about Abdul, suggesting that she saw the show as an opportunity to get a date or a husband. Paula, however, has maintained that she and Simon are good friends -- even when his harsh comments were read back to her.

I wondered if she was extraordinarily gracious, or if the whole act was simply a schtick, along the lines of ersatz enemies Jack Benny and Fred Allen.

"Working with Paula's been a total delight," said Cowell, eyes glittering ironically.

But Abdul got the last word.

"I just want to tell you, it's working," she said about her supposed husband-hunting plan. "Seventy men have called me, and only 23 have called Simon."

Cowell was asked if his acerbic persona has been overemphasized at the expense of the show's ultimate goal, which is to find a new young "American Idol" pop singer.

"You know, the idea was to try and show what the music business is really like," Cowell said philosophically. "Which is illogical, sexist -- all the things that are what it's like. We just come in and do our stuff. And sometimes we're interesting. And sometimes" -- here he gestured at Jackson and Abdul -- "those two are boring."

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