Simon's Upstage Game

Showman Cowell promotes "The X Factor" judge search even as this great "Idol" season proves the program's biggest stars are the singers

The most recent installment of "American Idol" proved one of the most gripping in the show's history, approaching a season-finale level of drama.

Casey Abrams, inexplicably nixed by voters, sang for his "Idol" life – only to be cut off mid-note by the judges who used their only "save" of the season to give him a rebirth. Abrams' reaction (he doubled over, almost as if in the kind of pain that put him in the hospital recently) proved a genuinely thrilling moment – as did the contestants' unbridled joy as Ryan Seacrest announced this year's touring crew would include the Top 11 rather than the usual 10.

The exciting finish set the stage for more suspense this week, with two hopefuls certain to be booted by Thursday. The emotion-driven action has put this pivotal season, punctuated by major judging panel changes and a great collection of contestants, on course to become one of the best in recent years.

Then why is Simon Cowell still getting the headlines?

The acerbic former "Idol" judge, a showman as much as a starmaker, is deftly using the surprising interest in his old program to help promote his new one, "The X Factor," which doesn't debut until fall. Auditions started Sunday in Los Angeles, reportedly drawing 15,000 hopefuls, and every day seems to bring new talk of the stars who could join L.A. Reid and Cowell on the judges' panel. Jessica Simpson? Enrique Iglesias? Nicki Minaj? A Cowell-Paula Abdul reunion perhaps?

Cowell has been circumspect in his comments about the reconstituted "Idol," but he's hardly shied away from press as his judge watch goes on. We’re having unwelcome flashbacks to last year when Cowell's impending departure from “Idol” spurred “who’s next?” talk that overshadowed the lackluster contestant crop.

This season, as evidenced by the latest “Idol” drama, the focus is back on the talent – no small feat considering the big names now on the panel.

Both Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez checked their egos at the door, proving un-Cowell-like in their measured criticisms of the wannabe singers. Lopez has displayed both emotion in her reactions and an honest, level-headedness in her thoughtful assessments. Tyler's shown he's a character with character, blurting whatever pops into his head (much to the ire of the censors) and offering unabashed praise for those whose music literally moves him into chair-dancing, table slapping and occasional “Dream on”-like yowls.

Tyler’s dash onto the stage last week to hug Jacob Lusk (our choice, so far, for the next "Idol") after a stirring rendition of Marvin Gaye's "You’re All I Need to Get By,” made for delightfully zany, spontaneous TV.

Moments like those, where the panelists play a major supporting role to the young singers, have made this a season worth watching – and, judging from the ratings, a success.

That’s all good, of course, for Fox, which will have "The X Factor" to literally fill the otherwise idle "Idol" stage during the older show's hiatus between Season 10 and 11.

Watch for Cowell, meanwhile, to keep milking his new judging drama and portraying himself as a comeback kid of sorts as he tried to recreate his success with the UK version of "The X Factor" on these shores. He's also smart enough to realize that even with all the promotion he can muster, the contestants are key to his new show’s hopes.

"No matter what your ambitions are for one of these shows, it absolutely depends on who the contestants are. If they're all useless and boring, you haven't got a show," he recently told The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters on her radio show, “The Business.”

If the contestants are useless and boring, Cowell certainly will tell them in the bluntest of terms. If he likes them, they shouldn’t expect any hugs.

And if Cowell’s looking for any tips for injecting drama into “The X Factor,” he might want to check out this week's episodes of "American Idol."

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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