Ellen Gray | 'Idol' tryout drill isn't pretty

AMERICAN IDOL. 8 tonight, Channel 29.

THERE ARE people who'll tell you that Fox's "American Idol" has gotten meaner this year.

Not all of them work at other networks - where they've dubbed the ratings hog "the Death Star" - or on ABC's "The View," which last week took a break from beating up on the Donald to weigh in on Simon Cowell.

Some of those aghast at the treatment accorded bad singers in Minneapolis and Seattle may actually be new to the show - which added nearly 2 million viewers from its previous season's premiere - and to the excruciating audition process, which I'd argue is nearly as hard on the viewers as it is on some of the more clueless hopefuls.

Others may forget from year to year that "Idol," which later in its season generally becomes one of the most entertaining shows on television, always starts out that way.

The Nielsen ratings, massive as always for the audition shows, in which the ratio of bad singers to good ones appears extraordinarily high, suggests that Americans not only prefer to hear bad singers, but that they enjoy hearing those singers insulted (and occasionally returning the favor).

Certainly Fox thinks so.

When entertainment president Peter Liguori was asked this weekend about criticism that the shows' judges were getting meaner, he dismissed it.

"I think it's part of what makes 'American Idol' 'American Idol,' " he said.

"Let's face it, this show's been on the air for six years. And the judges have been critical for six years. Hundreds of millions of people have watched the show. Hundreds of thousands of auditions have occurred. People know what the show is about," Liguori said.

While I'm inclined to agree with Liguori that "Idol" 's pre-live-show meanness shouldn't surprise anyone - and, yes, I know plenty of people for whom this is their absolutely favorite part of the "Idol" process - I also think the high ratings for the audition shows have as much to do with excitement over the show's return as anything else.

Some of us wait for months at a time for a show our kids are willing to watch with us. And then it comes back, and, well, maybe we've forgotten a little that "Idol" 's not all about talented nobodies stretching their wings and soaring toward fame.

Last week, after the New York Times reported that one of the failed contestants from the Seattle auditions had been a participant in Special Olympics, a lot of people winced.

I did, too, for a moment, before remembering all the times we've encouraged our own son, who's eligible for Special Olympics and a host of other sheltered activities, to risk failure participating in mainstream sports, music and drama programs in which he's been happy and occasionally quite successful.

I might not buy "Idol" producer Ken Warwick's argument that "you can't look into the backgrounds of everybody who is on the show" - certainly a moneymaker like "Idol" can afford background checks on singers who'll be featured at some length or who might have been particularly singled out for humiliation - but I'd hate to see singers with special needs excluded in the name of political correctness.

Even if it means that Simon occasionally embarrasses himself by making fun of them.

In the end, I suspect that much of "Idol" 's success comes not from fans' exulting in Simon's insults but in siding against him.

Try as he has to impose a physical standard for "idols," he's been stymied time and again by viewers at home, who've chosen singers like Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks over prettier, or at least more conventional-looking, candidates.

Golden Globe winner Jennifer Hudson may not have won "Idol," but she wouldn't have gotten as far as she has without the viewers.

Diversity's not always achieved in the prettiest of ways. If you want pretty, stick with NBC's "Grease: You're the One That I Want," which on Sunday named a dozen finalists to play "Grease" 's Danny and Sandy who'll challenge no one's visions of those roles.

"Grease," which began with a format that owed way too much to "Idol," including a Brit judge and a lot of contestants who didn't stand a chance, enters its viewer-participation segment next week having neatly disposed of the actors who might have better played Rizzo or Doody.

If the ratings for "Grease" have so far been only a tiny fraction of those for "Idol," maybe it's because anyone who ever went to high school knows how this one ends. *

Ellen Gray's just back from covering the Television Critics Association's winter meetings in Pasadena, Calif. For more on her two weeks there, see go.philly.com/ellengray.