Idol chatter with Simon Cowell

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The seventh season of American Idol is about to hit us like a ton of musically gifted bricks, and fans nationwide are bracing themselves for an onslaught of awful auditions, ruthless competition, and newly minted stars.

The real fun of Idol, though, lies in the antics of its three famous judges. We're looking forward to the usual "aiight, dawgs" from Randy Jackson; inexplicable antics from Paula Abdul, and undiluted criticisms from Simon Cowell, who took a moment to chat with reporters this week. Topics covered included the ongoing writers' strike, the agony of auditions, and the upcoming season.

Fans can expect a spanking-new Idol set this year, Cowell promised, along with some instrumentally enhanced auditions and more focus on the contestants' personalities. The most important change, however, lies in the talents of the latest crop of competitors.

"Most of our focus this year was to make sure that we got a better top 12 and a more interesting top 12 than what we got last year," Cowell explained. "I'm pretty certain that we have that this year, so that's the most important thing...you're going to see an improved show with much, much better singers and more interesting contestants."

Of course, the talent of a singer--as well as his or her success on Idol-- is not always a predictor of future achievement. Though several Idol alums have moved on to sold-out tours and Grammy nominations, others are experiencing a surprising slump in popularity. J Records recently dropped Taylor Hicks and Reuben Studdard, both winners of previous seasons, and poor record sales are plaguing Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis, who took first and second place last year.

"I think it's a reflection on the unpredictability of the record business," theorized Cowell. "I've run a record label for 25 years, and the one thing I know about this business is it is horribly unpredictable. Am I surprised? Not particularly...you literally have to give the public what they want, and the public decided this year it wasn't necessarily what they wanted. So, we have to try and do [what the public wants] this year, and I'm confident that we will."

After months of sitting through Idol auditions, Cowell is exhausted but optimistic. "It is worthwhile. Is it fun doing it? No. It is becoming increasingly like torture. What's amazing, even after seven seasons...is how much they still believe that they're right and I'm wrong. All I'm trying to do is help them."

That torture, however, is exactly the thing that makes for addictive television, as Cowell must agree. "I think you have to have that mix within the show," he admitted. "I think if it was completely sanitized, the audition process, that everybody came in and they were just competent, I think it would probably be the most boring show on TV. So, it's fun for me to watch. It is torture for me to do it."

Luckily for Cowell and his counterparts, the unscripted Idol is out of reach of the destruction caused by the striking Writers Guild of America. Many suspect that the already-formidable series will find a ratings windfall in the absence of scripted competition, but Cowell doubts this will be the case.

"When we found out about the writers' strike, it had absolutely zero impact on us," he said. "In the last three or four years, no one has ever put anything up against our show. So our success is down to the quality of our programs. I don't think it's going to have an impact on us either way."

Beginning tonight, American Idol will air on Fox Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m. Once you've seen a few of those fabulous auditions, let us know who you think will win it all this year!

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