DeGeneres says she is an ‘honest’ ‘Idol’ judge

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LOS ANGELES – Ellen DeGeneres is glad that her “American Idol” debut drew big ratings and high praise from the show’s creator, media mogul Simon Fuller. But the real test, she says, was judging herself.

She decided she didn’t let the contestants down, DeGeneres said Wednesday, the day after she watched the broadcast of her first “Idol” episode.

“I was honest with them (the singers). I was concerned going into it I would be tiptoeing around too much, but I wasn’t,” DeGeneres said.

Fellow judge Kara DioGuardi told a teleconference Wednesday, before that evening’s “American Idol” episode on Fox, that DeGeneres did “an incredible job for the first time here.”

Fans had been divided over how the comedian and talk show host would do in assessing vocal talent, but DioGuardi said DeGeneres proved herself able — and was kind as well as candid.

DeGeneres received a post-show flood of congratulatory Twitter messages and calls from friends and celebrities, including one from Fuller, who founded the TV franchise in Britain with “Pop Idol.” He pronounced himself “really, really happy,” she said.

She also got a rave review from her wife, Portia de Rossi (“Well, she loves me no matter what,” DeGeneres conceded).

For DeGeneres, “Idol” is another milestone in a career that includes her Emmy-winning daytime talk show, a deal with CoverGirl makeup, and her 1990s sitcom “Ellen,” the first on prime-time network TV to have an openly gay lead.

“American Idol,” which has long reigned as TV’s No. 1 series but has seen viewership slip, got a welcome ninth-season ratings boost with her on board.

Viewership was up by double-digits over last Tuesday’s episode among total viewers (12 percent) and the advertiser-favored young adult audience (10 percent), 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 percent among total viewers, at least 1 percent among young adults and by 8 percent 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.

Although the quick-witted DeGeneres was expected to be a match acerbic Simon Cowell, there was a lack of on-air fireworks between the new colleagues Tuesday. 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.

In an interview Wednesday, DeGeneres said the Hollywood auditions, in which 181 contestants will be narrowed down to 24 semifinalists, have to be tightly focused on the singers and don’t have room for extensive banter among the judges.

That’s not to say all was smooth, or will be, as the show moves ahead, especially when it shifts to live episodes.

“Everyone is anxious to see how Simon and I are going to be together and, you know, I am too,” DeGeneres said. “I know how we were for Hollywood week, and I know there were good days and bad days. But I don’t know how we’re going to be on live TV. That’s going to be an interesting thing.”

She usually agreed with Cowell’s judgment when she watched the show as a fan in seasons past, and was often entertained. But she said it’s important to remember that “someone’s passion” is at stake each time a contestant performs.

Cowell “is funny, but he’s also funny in a way that disregards anyone’s feelings. … That doesn’t feel good to me because I think there’s a better way to tell someone that that wasn’t good,” she said.

DioGuardi, who is in her second year as an “Idol” judge, dismissed the idea of tension on the set between DeGeneres and Cowell.

“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 replaced Paula Abdul, who 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 U.S. 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.


Fox is a unit of News Corp.


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