THE GLEE PROJECT. 9 p.m. Sunday, Oxygen.

THOSE KIDS ON "Glee" had better watch their backs.

Because their boss has at least a dozen singers in the pipeline who could slip into New Directions without missing a note.

The latest round of auditions for William McKinley High's glee club begin Sunday on Oxygen's "The Glee Project," which could be the summer's most entertaining "reality" competition.

Featuring 12 singers culled from an estimated 40,000 submissions and auditions, it's ostensibly designed to find one for whom "Glee" executive producer Ryan Murphy and his writers will create a seven-episode guest role next season.

What it really does, though, is to pull back the curtain a little on Fox's hit high-school musical to showcase the talent behind the scenes - and offer a hint of what it takes to survive in front of the cameras.

So why is "The Glee Project," originally intended for Fox, on a channel that's become a haven for the likes of Tori Spelling and Paris Hilton?

Short answer: They call it show business. According to the Hollywood Reporter, when Oxygen bid for the rights to show "Glee" reruns, it made acquiring the "reality" show a priority.

So Fox, which could have used the 10-episode show to keep alive the flame of Gleeks' devotion the way the "Glee" tour that stops at the Wells Fargo Center tomorrow night undoubtedly will, now has to hope a cable channel owned by rival NBC Universal finds an audience.

Let's hope Fox execs can find Oxygen, because there are things Murphy - who's executive producing "Project," too, and will oversee the weekly elimination round - could teach his "American Idol" counterparts about putting on a show.

Starting with how to introduce 12 people in their late teens and early 20s so effectively that when the first goes home, it actually feels like a loss, not just for that person, but for "Glee," too.

This is probably where "Glee" casting director Robert Ulrich comes in.

Whatever my issues with "Glee," casting's never been one of them, and Ulrich, who told reporters in January that he'd seen "every single audition" of the 40,000 - the mind reels - comes off in Sunday's premiere as someone who's interested in discovering talent, not merely dismissing it.

And he's chosen a group whose diversity goes beyond the usual assortment of ethnic or physical differences - though there is a guy who's 4-foot-9 - to include experience.

"Like the 'Glee' show, 'The Glee Project' has been open the same way to professionals [and] to people who have never sung but in their shower," Ulrich said. "We had Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison starring on Broadway, and we had Chris Colfer who had never had a professional job."

Along with choreographer Zach Woodlee and vocal producer Nikki Anders, Ulrich's running a "Glee" boot camp, complete with Will Schuester-like assignments that get worked into group numbers and music videos, and a weekly guest judge from the cast of the mothership.

Critiques, though constant, are usually pegged to the needs of "Glee," not "The Glee Project," leading to a refreshing lack of grandstanding in the episode I saw.

As Ulrich notes, the show's not about finding the best singer, dancer or actor, "it is about finding someone who will inspire the writers to write for them."

The real challenge with this group might be in choosing just one.

'Collar,' 'Covert Affairs'

The only thing more complicated than the underlying mystery on "White Collar" (9 tonight, USA) is its scheduling, which has the show coming and going so often only my DVR seems to remember when it's on.

Thank goodness.

Turns out that what wrapped up in March was the second half of Season 2, which means that tonight's "White Collar" is the Season 3 premiere.

I'm not sure how much that matters: Like most USA shows, "White Collar" resets itself periodically and so no one should be surprised if, say, the bromance between FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) and con artist Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) isn't proceeding smoothly.

As long as it's proceeding.

Also returning tonight, after a much longer interval: "Covert Affairs" (10 p.m., USA), the show I think of as "Alias" for people who'd rather not hurt their heads every week.

This season, CIA newbie Annie Walker (Jennifer Garner lookalike Piper Perabo) is a little less new, but her challenges remain, starting with her now-you-see-him, now-you-don't lover Ben Mercer (Eion Bailey) - who's not nearly as much fun as her blind, but somehow all-seeing work buddy Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham) - and her harried, married bosses (Kari Matchett and Peter Gallagher).

If you missed it last year, don't worry about jumping in: It's summer on USA and the water's fine. *

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