DeGeneres praised for American Idol debut

By Lynn Elber

LOS ANGELES — Ellen DeGeneres' debut on American Idol drove up ratings for the singing contest and drew praise from fellow judge Kara DioGuardi.

"Ellen brought a sense of humour, of course, but I think she knows more about music than you think she does," DioGuardi told a teleconference, adding, "I think she did an incredible job for her first time here."

While declining to compare DeGeneres to her predecessor, Paula Abdul, DioGuardi said the comedian and talk show host showed she can assess a contestant's star quality and talent and still be kind.

DioGuardi, who is in her second year as an Idol judge, said that speculation about tension on the set between DeGeneres and fellow judge Simon Cowell is unfounded.

"I think you have to take any rumor you hear about 'American Idol' with a grain of salt. They're usually not true," DioGuardi said. "Last year, it was Kara and Paula fighting, hate each other. ... These things are just ridiculous."

The judges are there to "do one thing, that's to find the greatest contestant, American Idol winner, we can find. That's what the focus is.

I know Ellen and Simon both take that seriously," she said.

DeGeneres joined the show on Tuesday for the first round of "Hollywood Week," the post-audition phase in which 181 contestants will be narrowed down to 24 semifinalists.

Although quick-witted DeGeneres was expected to be a match for the acerbic Cowell, there was a lack of on-air fireworks between the new colleagues. She teased him about his planned departure — "So this is it, huh? I come on, you leave" — and he teasingly called her a "sadist" when she toyed with contestants about their fate.

American Idol, which has long reigned as TV's No. 1 series but has seen viewership slip, got a welcome ninth-season ratings boost from DeGeneres' debut.

Viewership was up by double-digits over last Tuesday's episode among total viewers (12 per cent) and the advertiser-favored young adult audience (10 per cent), according to preliminary Nielsen Co. figures. Next to the season premiere, DeGeneres' first show was the second-highest rated of the season among both groups of viewers.

Ratings also rose compared to last season's first Hollywood week episode, up by 4 per cent among total viewers, at least 1 per cent among young adults and by 8 per cent among teenagers.

The last figure is significant given that Idol has seen an inevitable ratings slide as it ages and must attract new and younger viewers to hold or reverse course.

When Fox announced last year that DeGeneres, who lacks formal music experience, would be the new judge, fans were divided over the unlikely replacement for the sweet, emotional Abdul. The pop singer had judged Idol since it debuted in 2002 and left amid contract negotiations after the eighth season ended last year.

Another change is coming, when Cowell, a music industry executive and TV producer, leaves after this season to launch a US version of his British talent show, The X Factor, on Fox.

DioGuardi was asked during the teleconference to comment on Howard Stern, whose name has been floated as a possible replacement for Cowell.

"I don't know that he (Stern) has a musical background or any kind of music anything. If you're going to replace Simon, you've got to have that background" and know how to groom singers, DioGuardi said.

Other names have been mentioned as possible Cowell replacements, including actor-singer Jamie Foxx and music executives Tommy Mottola, Guy Oseary and Jimmy Iovine. Fox and the show's producers have declined comment on the contenders and said their choice won't be announced any time soon.

- AP

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