Michael Becker, Fox
'American Idol' judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell listen to more auditions.

"American Idol" wasn't very good least season, according to TV's harshest critic — Simon Cowell.

"I think last year it just wasn't one of our better seasons and you get that on all of these types of competition shows," Cowell said in a conference call. "You get great years and then you get not-so-great years.

"The good news is, from what we've seen in new audition shows, this is a much better season than last year."

"Idol's" seventh season kicks off with a two-hour episodes tonight and Wednesday (7 p.m., Ch. 13).

Cowell being Cowell — the "Idol" judge notorious for his brutal honesty and enormous ego — he never passes up a chance to take a shot at his fellow judges. He's quick to say that Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson were full of, well, baloney a year ago when they raved about the quality of that crop of singers.

"Paula and Randy went on record last year saying, 'The bar has been raised' and all that nonsense," Cowell said. "And, 'This is going to be one of the best years.' I didn't go along with that. I didn't believe it, but I will go on record this year in saying it is one of the strongest lineups we've had."

Are Paula and Randy in agreement?

"Well, if I say yes the other two always agree anyway," Cowell said.

"To be serious about it, yes, we are in agreement. I mean, Paula loves everyone. You know what she's like, but she seems excited. Randy's excited. I'm excited. I think it's going to be a good year."

(And, he said, the judges aren't as combative as they sometimes appear. "It can be a little bit acrimonious at times, but that's what happens when you've worked together for seven years," Cowell said. "You get on each other's nerves.")

It wasn't just the weird Sanjaya phenomenon that dragged the show down last season. Cowell said Sanjaya's long run despite small talent didn't hurt the show "because he didn't win."

"I'll be honest with you," he said. "Halfway through when it did occur to me after some absolutely horrific performances and the public kept him in that we actually might have a problem. ... Now I look back and I laugh about it and I think he was harmless. He had a run. He had some fun. He was actually a very nice kid. He was very polite afterwards, so I don't think any damage was done at all."

Cowell said this year's singers include quite a few "who are kind of doing their own things and they have a certain quirkiness and an individual style rather than just a ton of school kids, as we've had in some season who are just sort of talented puppets, for want of a better word. These people just look more current, they sound more current. They're definitely individuals. And I think three or four of the contestants we've got this year would have gotten recording contracts even without Idol. I think they were that good. So, it just feels, I think, more fresh than I've seen before and definitely more memorable."

Still, he's not making any promises that this year's winner will be a Kelly Clarkson or a Carrie Underwood, rather than a Taylor Hicks or a Ruben Studdard (both of whom have been dropped by their record companies).

"We always say we can't guarantee that we will find a superstar," Cowell said. "We'll do our best, but we're at the mercy of who turns up for the auditions."

COWELL SORT OF defended Abdul's performance on the critically assassinated reality show "Hey Paula." But only sort of.

He said she was "at the mercy of the edit" and that, while Abdul was seen treating her entourage rather badly in the Bravo series, he has "only witnessed her being kind to her assistants. They seem to get on well."

On the other hand, the crying jags that Abdul launched into at the slightest provocation seemed completely in character for her. Cowell said he's "seen a lot of that, but I saw that within the first hour of working with her. She's an emotional girl."

Cowell admitted he only watched about the first 30 minutes of the series.

"Yes, a lot of it is the Paula I know, which is why I stopped watching," he said. "Because I have it in real life so I don't need to watch it on TV again."

Lucky for Abdul that Cowell was on her side or he might have said something mean about her.

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