Michael Becker, Fox
Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell are the judges on Fox's hit series "American Idol."

"American Idol" judge Simon Cowell is never one to hold back, even about his own series.

"Things are too old-fashioned at the moment," says Cowell, reflecting on why the show's ratings have taken a slight dip recently. ("Idol" airs 7 p.m. MDT Tuesdays and 8 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox/Ch. 13.)

With a Kool cigarette in one hand and a small cup of coffee in the other, Cowell lives up to the swagger he presents each week on "Idol." And during an interview on the back lawn of a hotel, he's as direct as fans of the show have come to expect.

Cowell takes no prisoners. At this point, he can afford to make jabs at "Idol." Though the show has lost a few million viewers here and there — going from 29 million earlier in the season to around 22.8 million recently — it's still prime time's most-watched series by far.

Critics say the show may still have life, but it's lost its zing.

Cowell agrees. He sees "tweaks" that need to be made — and hints some will be done in the next season. "Idol" has changed the format over its seven seasons. Cowell says it's time for that to happen again.

Among the problems:

• The theme nights need to be "more current," he says. While Neil Diamond and Andrew Lloyd Webber are legendary, they might not be the right fit for "Idol" to devote an entire evening to.

Of the recent Webber week in particular, in which contestants performed show tunes: "I didn't really see the point," he says. "We're not looking for a Broadway singer."

• Cowell points to this year's contestants as being another factor for the ratings wane.

"We haven't got the right personalities at the moment," he says. "They are not letting go enough."

They are "very media savvy," he says. "They say the right things. They don't argue with me. It's too safe at the moment."

Cowell does concede that when contestants sassed him earlier in the season he responded by chiding them.

What's a contestant to do? "Argue more," he says with a smile.

• "Idol" needs to be more unpredictable — and not apologize when it is, he says.

"We have to stop being so (politically correct) about everything," he says. "It can't be so safe. We have to make a show that has you screaming at your television every week."

As an example, fellow judge Paula Abdul has no reason to apologize for her recent flub, Cowell says. She mistakenly criticized a contestant for a song he hadn't performed yet.

"It's all part of the craziness of the show," he says. "The year the show becomes normal is the year I will leave."