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American Idol, or insult

Since its blockbuster debut, Fox's American Idol talent competition has garnered almost as much criticism as praise _ helping the network clean up on young viewers while naysayers decried the show's focus on acerbic, insulting judge Simon Cowell.

"When I give these kids criticism, always in the back of my mind is, "If you're any good, you're going to bounce back,' " said Cowell, a judge from the show's British version who has earned worldwide fame through his blunt assessments of auditioning singers. "I'm just honest with them. That's what's the music business is like."

But onetime pop star Paula Abdul _ who helps Cowell judge aspiring singers alongside producer and former Journey bassist Randy Jackson _ couldn't disagree more.

"I've had more artists ... Alyssa Milano, Faith Ford, even Ed McMahon, Don Henley ... random artists addicted to the show who come up to me and say, "You've got to tell people (show business) is not like that,' " said Abdul, who joined Cowell, Jackson, the show's eight finalists and two hosts Monday in facing reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour.

"It's television ... it's heightened. But there is a part of Simon that ... thinks this is how it is," she added. "It's not. I've experienced it. I'm telling him it's not like that."

It's all part of the shtick of American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, where insulting the contestants, infighting among the judges, voting by TV viewers and tears among the contestants combine to create a potent magnet for young eyeballs (Fox has already picked up the show for a second season, to air in early 2003).

During an appearance before about 200 TV critics, Fox rolled out the show's eight remaining finalists like the P.T. Barnum of television networks _ with the participants singing a group version of California Dreaming to a prerecorded backing track that offered few vocal challenges.

But stop the fun and games to suggest that this 21st century Gong Show might actually be exploiting its young charges, exposing young performers to ridicule for ratings, and even the series' participants are ready to disagree.

"(Cowell) he's just being honest," said contestant Justin Guarini, considered by some a favorite to win the competition, which concludes Sept. 3 and 4. "It's constructive criticism."

The glitzy presentation was a trademark move by Fox, which also briefly assembled a small racetrack with radio-controlled toy cars, installed a vending machine that spit free candy and brought in comic Cedric the Entertainer to hype his new variety show by playing a boisterous preacher backed by Los Angeles' Greater Bethany Community Church Choir.

"You, the writers and critics are the fertilizer that will help these shows to grow," Cedric said, in an offhand reference to the level of, um, exaggeration often tossed around at the press tour. "Just from the titles alone, I know there's no sinning going on in these shows."

All the glitz helped distract from a painful fact. Fox last season banked on quality to succeed, which garnered a boatload of awards _ including Emmy nominations and TCA awards for 24 and the Bernie Mac Show _ but the ratings didn't follow.

So this year's slate of shows are less complex and more commercial, from the Fast and the Furious-influenced action drama Fastlane to Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley's drama about three attractive female attorneys dubbed girls club.

Critics' attention quickly focused on Fox's decision to move returning show Bernie Mac to 8 p.m. Wednesdays this fall _ where it will compete against the only other TV sitcom starring a black man, Damon Wayans' My Wife and Kids on ABC.

"I had no complaints about (the move)," said Bernie Mac, speaking to reporters by satellite from a movie set in Baltimore, noting that Wayans asked him to help publicly protest the change. (Fox executives maintain the two shows have different audiences and shouldn't cannibalize each other). "Damon called me and I told him ... this is business."

Cast members from 24, which premiers on Oct. 29, let slip a few details about next season, which will once again star Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, who will have resigned from the antiterrorist agency where he worked last season.

Bauer, estranged from his daughter after his wife was killed at the end of last season, will be called by now-President David Palmer to help with a new problem. And Sutherland, nominated Thursday for an Emmy as best drama actor, was emphatic: He's not some movie star slumming in TV land.

"It's very clear among every (movie) actor that if you're in the right show and it's treated properly, your potential to reach fans is bigger than any medium on the planet," he said. "It's the best job I've ever had."