Expect to see male contestants come to the forefront, Paula Abdul says.
By DAVE MASON
Last season, it was the battle of the women on "American Idol."
This time, the men at the auditions have impressed the judges -- reportedly even that mean guy, Simon Cowell.
"I've got to tell you. Even Simon was impressed this time," judge Paula Abdul said. "Don't tell him that you heard that. He has his reputation."
Abdul said she thinks Cowell "has mellowed," but fellow judge Randy Jackson won't go that far.
"Maybe he's changed a bit," Jackson said.
Abdul, Jackson and Cowell, who once told a singer she sounded like Donald Duck on helium, will be back to judge as the fourth season of "American Idol" begins with a two-hour episode Tuesday (8 p.m., Fox). Another episode will follow at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Ryan Seacrest returns as host.
Fans have become addicted enough to watching the great and not-so-great singers to make "American Idol" the only show to beat "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" in the ratings.
Cowell, who is one reason viewers watch, wasn't available for an interview, but the much more positive Abdul didn't hesitate to speak for him.
"We've all been working out butts off," she said in a phone interview. "Simon went to England for that show ('Pop Idol'); he's tired. But I honestly think he's very excited."
The right choice
In a separate phone interview, Jackson noted the winners have alternated between genders each season: Kelly Clarkson in the first season, Ruben Studdard in the second and, last year, Fantasia Barrino (who just uses her first name these days). A man likely will win this time, Jackson said.
Jackson said the viewers voting at home surprise him and sometimes the voting seems dismal, but ultimately, they pick the right winner each season. "Fantasia was definitely the right choice."
The big question is how long "Idol" singers will be around on the charts. Abdul predicted fans will still be buying records by Fantasia, Clarkson and runner-up Clay Aiken 10 years from now.
Last season, Abdul and many viewers had expected the final two singers to be Fantasia and La Toya London, but voters sent London and fellow powerhouse Jennifer Hudson packing several weeks before the finale.
Afterward, some complained that they couldn't get the calls through the phone lines for voting, but Abdul said, "That's the price you pay for a show with such success."
Last season, viewers learned that if they don't vote, even the best singers can leave while lesser vocalists with many fans stick around.
Take Jon Peter Lewis, for example. His enthusiasm outweighed his vocal talent, but he lasted longer than critics and some viewers expected.
"People liked his personality," Abdul said. "That other John [Stevens], the redhead -- parents and grandparents related to him. He was a nice boy."
Jackson said the great thing about Aiken was his appeal to a market that the recording industry has neglected: middle-aged women.
"I don't think moms, housewives, ages 35 to 50, are glued to MTV," Jackson said. "We always thought he was like a junior Barry Manilow."
Manilow himself and Elton John helped the singers prepare last season for nights devoted to the singers' music, and other theme nights covered swing music and Broadway tunes.
What about a night of Paula Abdul songs?
She chuckled. "I think it would be distracting to me."