‘American Idol’ Returns for Second Round

AP Television Writer

LOS ANGELES – More Simon Cowell barbs, more sponsor plugs and maybe the worst singer ever given national exposure will be part of “American Idol” when it returns Tuesday.

The Fox TV series isn’t tinkering with the formula that made it a smash hit last summer, its producers say. Can it withstand the pressure of regular-season competition?

“The show is what the show is. The show runs by virtue of which contestant walks through that door,” said co-executive producer Ken Warwick.

The series scored in America with its fresh take on the talent-search format, including live shows and viewer voting.

Nearly 23 million people watched Kelly Clarkson win the first “American Idol” competition last September. Clarkson scored a No. 1 single, “A Moment Like This,” but has yet to release her first album.

With some 70,000 people auditioning for the second season, compared to 10,000 the first time around, there is a deeper pool of talent vying for the “Idol” title and a record contract, Warwick said.

The group has been whittled down to 234 people and will be trimmed to 32 semifinalists in the second week. Viewers will vote on the semifinalists during the Tuesday shows (8 p.m. EST), and the results will be announced live on Wednesdays (8:30 p.m. EST).

While contestants face stiffer competition, so does Fox. The relatively clear field of summer has given way to a fall season stuffed with reality shows including ABC’s popular “The Bachelorette,” which will air against “American Idol” on Wednesday.

CBS’ new “Star Search” and other talent shows have adopted “Idol”-like elements such as viewer voting.

Cowell, singer-dancer Paula Abdul and music industry veteran Randy Jackson are returning as judges. A newcomer, DJ Angie Martinez, dropped out because she was uneasy criticizing contestants. Ryan Seacrest will be the solo host, without Brian Dunkleman.

The sponsor plugs contained within the show itself will be back. Some critics called their inclusion jarring.

“I think it’s fair to say that this show really innovated when it comes to product integration. … and we were learning as we were going along,” said executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz.

This time, sponsor AT&T will offer a text-message service that can be used for voting. And viewers will see the Ford Focus room, christened for the car, in which contestants can pour their hearts out for the camera after they’ve faced the judges.

Cowell is sharpening his tongue. The British import says he pulled punches as the field narrowed to the singer who would earn the record deal. It was a mistake he won’t repeat, Cowell told reporters Saturday.

“I sat there and I bit my tongue on the last two or three shows because I thought, ‘I’m going to work with these people. Maybe I should be nice to them.’ I will never, ever do that again.”

If it seems Cowell couldn’t hurl more painful insults, consider his assessment of a male contestant who gets the hook in the new “American Idol” after performing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

“There was a guy in Atlanta — I’m not exaggerating here — I thought was the worst singer in the world. I cannot believe anyone on this earth can sing as bad as him,” he said.