Paula Abdul AWOL From 'Idol' Panel

By Lisa de Moraes
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

PASADENA, Calif., Jan. 17

Not one to waste a minute, Paula Abdul dove into her next "American Idol" kerfuffle before the show even debuted Tuesday night, standing up a couple hundred critics and reporters, the show's executive producers and her fellow judges -- who then hung her out to dry.

It's the most fun we've had yet at Winter TV Press Tour 2006.

"We did just get a call; Paula Abdul has an eye infection. She is on the way to the doctor and hopes to join us tonight" at the Fox party, network press relations guru Joe Early announced at the end of the Q&A session with programming chief Peter Liguori.

Critics hissed.

Surviving "Idol" panelists took the stage: exec producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, host Ryan Seacrest and judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson, who'd been with Abdul her evening before when they'd taped an appearance on NBC's "Tonight" show, where she looked just fine Monday night. (That taping happened right before Abdul taped an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres's syndicated show. It aired Tuesday -- and she looked just fine.)

Almost immediately, Jackson and Cowell began to verbally wink at critics, as if to say "This is not our lie; we're not lifting this lie, we have no investment in this lie -- we're too busy with our own lies."

One critic said, "I'm concerned about Paula. Did something happen to her eye last night after she left 'The Tonight Show'?"

"It fell out?" Cowell suggested helpfully.

"She had to put it back in," Jackson added.

"We don't want to spread any rumors here," Cowell said.

When a critic asked about one of the debut episode's stranger contestants, exec producer Warwick noted that the guy "rolled his eyes up . . . like he was having a seizure."

"He had an eye infection as well?" joked Jackson.

"No, no, he wasn't accused of anything -- he didn't get an eye infection," the critic said.

After the Q&A session, both exec producers told The TV Column that they did not know Abdul would miss the Q&A session until just before the critics were told.

We asked Warwick if he had learned what happened to Abdul's eye. "She left it under the grill too long," he cracked.

"I arrived expecting to see her and was told by a publicist she would not be here," he said.

Abdul's absence became a sort of leitmotif of Fox's day at the press tour. During the Q&A session for action drama "24," one critic noted that a cast member was missing from the stage and wondered whether that actor's character had been killed off or whether actor just had an "eye infection." Everyone tittered.

Earlier there had been some speculation in the back of the ballroom as to whether what Abdul had meant was that she had an "I" infection.

Though not at the "Idol" Q&A in body, Abdul was there in spirit.

Right before the panelists took questions, Fox ran a promo with clips from the audition portion of this season's competition. One clip, of an alarmingly Corey Clarkish guy singing "You raise me up so I can stand on a mountain" from Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up," cut to Abdul gushing about how his mediocre performance had blown her away.

Did they learn nothing last season? Last season, you'll recall, ABC News scored boffo ratings during the sweeps when Corey Clark told correspondent John Quinones that Abdul had shagged him, coached him and given him a makeover while he was a contestant in the singing competition.

Abdul, who'd already spent the previous "Idol" season living down rumors she was stoned on the show (she said a manicure mishap led to a serious finger infection), denied Clark's claims. But the story had gotten so big that Fox had to launch an investigation -- which concluded there was no concrete evidence she'd done anything wrong. Judging by critics' questions, they're not really buying it.

"As far as I can tell, the conclusion of the investigation is that since no one actually saw her having sex with anybody, everything is okay," one said during Liguori's session.

Liguori was all over this one.

"First and foremost, we stand behind the findings," he said firmly.

"We went out, got an outside counsel, did an extremely thorough investigation," which, he explained, was geared toward "the sanctity of the competition and making sure that all those votes count and that the competition is fair."

The investigation found that "the claims were unsubstantiated and, you know, [we] clearly felt there was no need for any action on our part," he said.

On the other hand, he also said: "We've clarified and reclarified our fraternization policies and feel from this point forward that, in fact, as always, that the show and its competition are paramount and its sanctity is in place."

Lythgoe was asked about that "clarification and reclarification."

"Peter Liguori put an end to that this morning and I'm happy to leave it there," Lythgoe said in that sniffy way that Brits excel at.

"We have to move on," he said, sounding more and more like Mary Poppins talking to those bratty kids who turned out to be little darlings, just starved for attention.

But critics, who'd seen that flick ages ago -- and possibly again last year when the studio released a 40th-anniversary DVD boxed set, not that there's anything wrong with that -- knew how to handle a Mary Poppins type, and persisted in demanding that he address how the fraternization rules had been reclarified.

Lythgoe insisted the rules have not changed one whit and have just been "pointed out again."

"It's always been the same," he said testily.

"I can't touch Simon anymore," Jackson said, jumping in. Then he turned to Cowell and added, "How do I quit you, Simon?"

* * *

Moving the Golden Globe Awards to Monday night brought NBC a whole lot of talking points about how the trophy show gave the network its biggest non-Olympic Monday in more than six years and improved on its Monday season average by 75 percent among 18-to-49-year-olds, the group the network promises to deliver to advertisers.

Nearly 19 million viewers caught the show, in which "Brokeback Mountain" came away the big winner, Anthony Hopkins was given the career achievement award and Hugh Laurie of Fox's "House" delivered the only really decent acceptance speech. That's nearly 2 million better than last year's Globes audience, which got pulverized opposite ABC's ratings magnet "Desperate Housewives," which is why NBC moved it to Monday.

But it is still far short of the 26 million-and-change the show clocked in 2004. Which is probably because "Brokeback Mountain" came away the big winner, Anthony Hopkins was given the career achievement award and "House's" Hugh Laurie delivered the only really decent acceptance speech.

And, right about now, ABC suits are steeling themselves for having one of the smaller Oscar audiences on record in about a month.

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