January 18, 2007 02:25 PM

American Idol is commanding record TV audiences, but the early buzz about the show’s sixth season is that it may be becoming too negative, even by its own standards.

On Thursday, View co-host Rosie O’Donnell joined a chorus of other critics who have said the show is being too hard on the early contestants.

The View screened a clip of Simon Cowell insulting one singer, Kenneth Briggs, and calling him a “bush baby,” then laughing with Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul after the contestant left.

“Isn’t that what America thinks is entertainment?” O’Donnell asked. “To make fun of someone’s physical appearance and then when they leave the room laugh hysterically at them – three millionaires, one probably intoxicated,” she said, referring to Abdul, who exhibited some odd behavior recently while promoting the show.

“The whole thing, it’s terribly sad to me,” O’Donnell added.

Media critics have also jumped on the show’s cruelty. “Several moments from (Wednesday’s) two-hour highlight-lowlight reel of Seattle auditions failed to pass my personal squirm test, and I know that I’m not alone,” Entertainment Weekly critic Michael Slezak writes on the magazine’s Web site.

Slezak points to the treatment of Seattle performers Jonathan Jayne and Briggs, saying he felt “fury rising within” him while watching the show.

Some visitors to the official American Idol message boards are speculating that FOX is playing a ratings game by stacking the broadcast with more excruciating performances than usual.

Writes one: “I think they know how much people enjoy the bad auditions, and thought that by filling auditions with nearly ALL negative auditions that they’d be improving the show. Not so. I love birthday cake but if I ate it for every meal, it would get old.”

David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle says the judges – including the newly rancorous Jackson – have been no better. They are “either seriously off their game, or have just gotten tired of themselves,” he writes.

One thing is certain: Idol has plenty of viewers left to lose. Tuesday’s premiere was the most-watched debut ever for the show, drawing 37.3 million viewers, according to preliminary ratings from Nielsen Media Research.

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