FOX'S "AMERICAN Idol" has never exactly shied away from controversy, its producers long ago having figured out that the only bad publicity is no publicity.
But for Simon Cowell, who's happily weathered many a tempest in the "Idol" teacup, the apparent suicide of a woman outside fellow judge Paula Abdul's Los Angeles home Nov. 11 falls into a different category: "tragedy."
"It hit us like an express train," he told reporters yesterday. "So I don't like that kind of controversy attached to the show, because it upset me a lot."
Following the death of Paula Goodspeed, who had reportedly changed her first name in honor of Abdul and whose 2005 audition on the show had subjected her to withering comments from both her personal idol and Cowell, Abdul's been complaining to anyone who'll listen that producers endangered her by even allowing Goodspeed to go before the judges.
Cowell, who doesn't see it quite that way, noted that "there are a minimum of seven security guards in the room at any time." He also objected to the way Goodspeed's been characterized.
"I really don't like referring to this person as a stalker," he said, adding that his preferred term would be "fan."
"I wish we could have spent time trying to help her, but we genuinely didn't know" about her problems, he added. "We don't research people" who audition.
With "Idol" approaching its eighth-season launch on Jan. 13, there's been considerable speculation about how the show's first-among-equals judge feels about the naming of Kara DioGuardi as a permanent fourth.
"I have no idea whether it's going to work or not, because I haven't watched the show back yet," Cowell said.
"She's got experience. You know, she's written hit songs . . . She's obviously not snobby about this kind of music."
On the other hand, "I have been very, very happy with this panel for years because we did have a unique chemistry."
Joking about executive producer Ken Warwick's earlier comments that the two women judges were ganging up on him and making him miserable, he said, "One is hard enough, two is unbearable," but "I've got Randy [Jackson] on my side, so it's not that bad."
He said he's gotten to use his power to break ties a few times.
"I love it. They hate it," he said of his fellow judges' reactions.
Here's a bit of what else the Brit Americans best know as "Simon" had to say:
On feisty contestants: Saying he hoped that this season's auditioners would "fight back a little more," he said, "there were just too many people, I felt, last year in particular, who weren't saying what they were thinking."
On "Idol's" Holy Grail: "We try every year to get Paul McCartney on, and for whatever reason, he won't come on."
On how much longer he'll remain as a judge: "I'll make a decision next year as to what I do as an onscreen judge [but with or without him] . . . I think this show could go on for another 10, 20 years, to be honest with you."
Fans of Frank Sinatra and AMC's "Mad Men" - and we'll assume there's some overlap there - might want to check out CBS' "Cold Case" (9 p.m., Channel 3) this Sunday.
Several of Sinatra's recordings - "Come Fly with Me," "Too Marvelous for Words," "I've Got the World on a String," "Little Girl Blue" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" - will be used to set the stage for the investigation into the 1960 murder of an airline stewardess.
Yes, that's what they called flight attendants when dinosaurs roamed the sky.
And if you've followed "Mad Men," nothing in this episode, which features blasts from the past Lee Majors, Adrienne Barbeau and Mariette Hartley, and introduces Raymond J. Barry as the estranged father of Detective Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris), should surprise you.
Except, perhaps, an instructor telling prospective stewardesses that with only three out of 100 women being chosen for a spot on her airline, they'd have had a better chance of getting into Harvard (which, though partnered with Radcliffe, didn't start admitting women to its own undergraduate program until 1973).
And then there's the always-in-progress Philly skyline, with which no show produced on the other side of the country can be expected to keep up.
I know, I know. It's probably best not to overthink these things.
Just sit back and enjoy the music. *