Stephen M. Silverman
January 17, 2006 08:00 AM

Tuesday brings the fifth season premiere of American Idol, the most-watched show on TV, with ratings averaging more than 27 million viewers per week. It is also second to only the Super Bowl when it comes to generating advertising dollars, with FOX charging more than $700,000 for a 30-second spot.

The show’s judges don’t do too badly, either. The most visible, scowling Simon Cowell, reportedly returns to the show after a three-week winter break in Mauritius with a dozen family and friends including girlfriend Terri Seymour and his mother, Julie.

But when it comes to the show, Cowell’s entourage consists of fellow judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul and host Ryan Seacrest. The judges, speaking to USA Today, have concurred that first-season winner Kelly Clarkson remains the program’s biggest success – which legions of Clay Aiken fans will no doubt dispute – and that this new season will offer the strongest talent yet.

In a smattering of other opinions, the group tells the newspaper that “Kelly and Fantasia. … Fantasia, she’s otherworldly” were the best singers (according to Jackson) and that Clarkson “just keeps getting better and better” (so sayeth Cowell).

As for the worst singer so far, Jackson counts William Hung (of the memorable rendition of “She Bangs”) as being “in the top three. Then there’s that Edgar kid” – Edgar Nova, who flunked out second season. Abdul thinks “there are people that make William Hung look like Sinatra. … There’s Keith and Edgar. There’s Scary Mary” – Mary Roach, of last season’s “I Feel the Earth Move” fiasco. Cowell saves his utmost scorn for Keith Beukelaer, from season 2: “I saw him in Atlanta, and he murdered ‘Like a Virgin.'”

And finally, for now, any fallout from the Abdul controversy over her allegedly getting too close to contestant Corey Clark? While Abdul still says, “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Cowell adds, “The allegations made (the season) more interesting. I was more interested in Paula afterwards. The whole thing was rubbish.”

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