His name is Jerry, and he's never been this nervous. It's a late-October afternoon in New York City, and for his ''American Idol'' audition in front of judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson, he's chosen to sing the Boyz II Men ballad ''On Bended Knee.'' He opens his mouth, and the sound is painful. When he forgets the lyrics, Jerry stops and starts again. And stops again. And starts again. And stops again. After what seems like a few hours, the ordeal is finally over. Cowell glances at his notes. ''I see you do comedy,'' he reads. ''Is that part of your routine?''
''It's true,'' Jerry shrugs. ''I can't sing.''
''Finally!'' exults Jackson. ''Someone who knows!''
Yep, the god-awful vocalists of America are upon us again. On Jan. 21, Fox's smash talent show -- which drew 23 million viewers for last September's finale -- begins its second season. But with summer 2002 just a fading memory, will ''Idol'''s largely teenage fan base tune in on...a school night?
Fox needs a happy tune badly: This season has been dismal so far, with the cancellation of its most anticipated new series, David E. Kelley's ''girls club,'' after only two episodes. During November sweeps, the network's viewership among 18- to 49-year-olds was down 29 percent from 2001. And, for Fox, reality lightning rarely strikes twice: Its last nonfiction hit, ''Temptation Island,'' which averaged 16.6 million viewers its first season, lost 66 percent of them on the return trip.
Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman is already trying to temper ''Idol'''s performance anxiety. ''I want to reinforce that this show started in the summer last year when there was limited competition,'' says the exec. ''[Now] it's going up in a more formidable time period. So we have realistic expectations.''
Much to the network's dismay, ''Idol'' now faces at least one prime-time knockoff, CBS' revamped ''Star Search,'' which debuted Jan. 8. Abdul cries foul at ''Search'' promos featuring a wannabe squawking ''Under the Boardwalk.'' ''When I first saw it, I went, 'It's an ad for ''American Idol''!''' she says. ''It even used the same neon blue.'' Adds Cowell: ''That show has a problem. Music in its barest form on television is about as boring as you can get. To put people on without any controversy or good versus evil, it will not work.''
''I don't think people necessarily want to see good versus evil,'' responds ''Search'' coexec producer Todd Wagner. ''What they want to see is talented people.'' But Wagner does admit his show has undergone a few ''Idol''-inspired modifications. ''We'll see more background on the contestants. And yes, the judges will be a little more talkative.''