LOS ANGELES -- So far, breathtakingly untalented William Hung is the big hit of this season's "American Idol."
The situation should change Tuesday as the 12 freshly minted finalists, including a teenager from Snellville, Ga., take the stage for a two-hour show and the chance to really let TV viewers see what they've got.
It's about time, say some discontented observers and tough-love judge Simon Cowell, who's dripping more acid than usual in the third season of the Fox talent extravaganza.
"You'd probably agree that the heats have been fairly lackluster," Cowell told The Associated Press. Even standout finalist La Toya London, 24, of Hawthorne, Calif., earns his gimlet eye.
"She was good, that was a good performance, but there's another part of me that thinks we thought she was great because everyone else is so terrible," he said.
At KZLA, a Los Angeles-area radio station that has avidly followed each season of "American Idol," attitudes toward the show have soured. Last Wednesday, disc jockey Peter Tilden told listeners he was so appalled by the talent this year that he boycotted the wild card special the night before.
But the TV audience is unfazed. Ratings are up 31 percent in total viewers and 26 percent among the advertiser-favored group of adults 18 to 49, happily reports co-executive producer Ken Warwick.
He and the finalists insist viewers know what's good.
"Honestly, I think the competition this year is more tough because everybody is so (musically) diverse in this top 12," said Jasmine Trias, 17, of Mililani on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
"I think everybody is so, so talented," said exuberant Jennifer Hudson, 22, of Chicago, Ill. "I don't think America's seen our best yet. Look out for group three!"
Hudson, making a Betty Boop fashion statement last week with curls and a pink frock, wowed judge Randy Jackson with her performance of "I Believe in You and Me." She became his wild card pick, one of four who got a second chance to keep competing for a record contract.
Jackson believes that Hudson is right and scowling Cowell dead wrong in assessing the field.
"This is the first bunch that we've had that wasn't boring," Jackson said. "With this bunch there definitely will be sparks and wild, crazy antics going on."
They include several poetically named songbirds (Fantasia, Jasmine, Camile), a contingent of teenagers who still have to get in their daily schooling, and a 25-year old mortgage banker (Matthew Rogers made the contest cut-off age, 24, during auditions.)
In this third go-around, what is Jackson looking for in an idol? Rich-voiced Kelly Clarkson and "velvet teddy bear" Ruben Studdard were the first and second season winners.
"I'm looking for uniqueness. Unique voice, unique sense of style and a unique star kind of ability," Jackson said. "I think that, for me, this is the first group that I've actually seen two people that I think are stars."
For the record, he's not naming names.
So why is Jackson playing Simon Says, matching the bluntness of his fellow judge's reviews? (Paula Abdul, America's sweetheart, is as kind and noncommittal as ever in her assessments.)
Because contestants now have examples to follow, Jackson said.
"They saw the first season; Kelly can blow. The second season, Ruben and Clay (Aiken, the runner-up) can blow. You can watch tapes, go back to your TiVo - you have the blueprints, so HOW could you be so messed up now, dude? C'mon, dawg."
Speaking of blueprints, "Idol" is mostly following its own. After the two-hour show Tuesday (8 p.m. EST), the group of 12 finalists will be pared down in weekly sing-offs.
Guest judges will be on hand, with Elton John, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and Donna Summer among the prospects. The series culminates with a May 25-26 finale.
While the quest to unearth a musical star is the program's goal, Warwick contends that viewers tune in because "American Idol" offers "three in one" entertainment.
"You've got the comedy of the audition process," the producer said. "You've got this central section where America comes in for the first time and picks who the finalists are going to be, and then you've got all the big show-business razzmatazz of the final 12."
The top comic relief this time around was Hung, an earnest, tone-deaf engineering student who gained instant fame and an unlikely record deal by mangling Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" in the open audition.
As America embraces Hung, Cowell grows uneasy.
"When you celebrate awfulness it puts you in a slightly uncomfortable position," said the British record executive.
"I do think it's fun what's happening with William, but at the same time it slightly gets me nervous that we're going to get people coming on the show next year that want to be bad."
Warwick brushes away such concerns: There's too much at stake, a shortcut to fame and fortune, to undermine the series, he says.
(There's also the bounty that comes to series production company 19 Entertainment, which oversees the recording deal for "American Idol" stars as well as merchandising, touring, sponsorship and movie deals.)
This year's contestants are acutely aware of the top 10 releases from Studdard, Clarkson and Aiken, Warwick said.
"They know the prize and how successful they can be. It's something else to spur them on to be as good as they can be."
Here are the 12 finalists vying for the crown of "American Idol," and the tunes that helped them advance:
-Amy Adams, 24, Bakersfield, Calif. The Kanas City, Kan., native is a makeup artist who describes an idol as graceful, elegant and with "a strong enough mental state to handle anything." Favors Celine Dion, Faith Hill and Barbra Streisand. Her song: "Power of Love."
-Fantasia Barrino, 19, High Point, N.C. High school student and mother of 2-year-old daughter Zion, who Barrino predicts is a future idol. Started singing in church at age 5; likes skating and dancing. Her song: "Something to Talk About."
-Diana Degarmo, 16, Snellville, Ga. The second youngest finalist by a month, Degarmo is a sports fan (football, soccer, basketball) and goes for variety in music: Celine Dion, Pasty Cline, Nickelback and the Ying Yang Twins. Her song: "I've Got the Music In Me."
-Jennifer Hudson, 22, Chicago. Lack of formal training hasn't kept Hudson from a musical career: She's a singer and actress for a cruise ship line. Favorite artists are Beyonce, Celine Dion and Ruben Studdard, and she believes a true idol has "every bit of star quality." Randy Jackson's wild card pick. Her song: I Believe in You and Me."
-George Huff, 23, New Orleans. University of Oklahoma music education major comes from a family of singers; performed regularly at Louisiana churches. Considers himself a jazz, blues and gospel artist. Simon Cowell's wild card pick. His song: "Lean on Me."
-Leah LaBelle, 17, Seattle. A native of Toronto and high school junior with a family musical tradition and a dramatic story - her parents used their touring group to escape communist Bulgaria. Paula Abdul's wild card pick. Her song: "Let's Stay Together."
-Jon Peter Lewis, 24, Rexburg, Idaho. A native of Lincoln, Neb., Lewis is a pre-med student at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Speaks Spanish and some French and Catalan. "Love the music in yourself, not yourself in the music" is his philosophy. Viewers' wild card pick. His song: "A Little Less Conversation."
-La Toya London, 24, Hawthorne Calif. Married with stepchildren, London studies at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. Classifies her vocal style as soul and most identifies with India.arie. If she couldn't sing, would like to play piano, guitar or drums. Her song: "All by Myself."
- Matthew Rogers, 25, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. A native of Arcadia, Calif., Rogers played football at the University of Washington and works as a mortgage banker. He likes football and fishing and aspires to compete in a poker World Series. His song: "What You Won't Do for Love."
-John Stevens, 16, East Amherst, N.Y. The youngest contestant. High school junior who recently returned from a choir tour in Europe. Admires Frank Sinatra's music; says he has the same vocal style. Also has a knack for impersonations. His song: "She's Always a Woman."
-Jasmine Trias, 17, Mililani, Hawaii. High school student and Hawaiian native who wants to put her state on the map. Also surfs, plays the ukulele, performs at her church and volunteers in a hospital. Her song: "Run to You."
-Camile Velasco, 18, Haiku, Hawaii. A native of Makati City, Philippines, Velasco is a waitress at an International House of Pancakes and a latecomer to performing: She started at age 16. Her song: "One Last Cry."
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