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"Cupid' holds a quiver of poison arrows

With his new dating game, Cupid, Simon Cowell may have everything going for him but timing.

The American Idol villain premieres Cupid on CBS tonight in the midst of a desultory summer of reality programming. There's a glut of series, none of them particularly good and none breakout hits.

The danger for Cowell is getting lost in the quicksand, that viewers numbed by For Love or Money and Paradise Hotel won't give his program a chance.

After having several networks initially pass on American Idol before it became a hit, Cowell _ never afraid to offer his opinion, anyway _ is confident of this one.

"Regardless of the competition or the timing, if something is fundamentally good, it will work," he said. "If something is fundamentally bad, it won't. I don't think you could ever invent the perfect time slot for any show."

Cowell conceived the show and is its executive producer. He wasn't going to appear on the air, but he recently decided to serve as a narrator for the first two episodes.

In its advertising, CBS has happily played up the participation of one of reality TV's most recognizable performers. That alone may earn Cupid a significant number of viewers tuning in out of curiosity, an advantage few of its rivals can count on, said Marc Berman, a television analyst for Media Week Online.

But it may not be enough.

"I do not think it's going to be a hit show," Berman said. "There's just too many shows like this. There's nothing different about this show; there's no novelty to it."

On the surface, Cupid seems an appealing blend of American Idol and The Bachelor. The lead character is Linda Shannon, 25, an advertising copywriter who winds up with a potential mate voted upon by the viewing public.

Shannon is given a $1-million dowry, which she can keep if she marries the winning guy and stays married for a year.

This summer is shaping up as a low-water mark for reality, creatively and commercially. When ABC debuted The Dating Experiment on June 25, it barely drew 4.8-million viewers. Fox's Anything But Love premiere was seen by a paltry 5.2-million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

This summer's prime-time television has been dominated by Jerry Bruckheimer and Dick Wolf. The shows they produce _ Wolf's Law & Order and its two spinoffs, and Bruckheimer's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise and Without a Trace _ have been more popular in reruns than anything new.

One advantage for Cupid is that it's on CBS. The survivor network is less susceptible than its rivals to flooding the airwaves. It picks projects with care and promotes them relentlessly.

"CBS knows how to do reality," Berman said. "They do it very wisely."

Cowell brings one of the most compulsively watchable aspects of American Idol to Cupid. Just like the Fox show gives you a chance to cringe at, or mock, embarrassingly bad singers, Cupid will let you see all the losers who try to date Ms. Right.

"I find it ridiculous on these shows that you have 20 guys selected by producers and you say to the girl, "You will fall in love with one of these guys,' " Cowell said. "I find that slightly absurd."

Shannon, raised in the Detroit suburbs, watched "auditions" of potential mates in Chicago, New York, Miami and Los Angeles. She took two friends along to dish on the guys.

That's more like real life, too, Cowell said.

"If you see a pretty girl in a bar, she's never going to be on her own if she's looking for a guy," he said.

Don't expect wine and roses, and romantic nights shown with a soft-focus camera lens.

"I know what the dating scene is like in real life," Cowell said. "Unfortunately, it's not medieval castles and red rose ceremonies. I wish! It's not. It's about humiliation and ego and jealousy, all those things I think we understand."