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Idol in Austin? Not quite

06:11 PM CST on Friday, February 3, 2006

By MANUEL MENDOZA / The Dallas Morning News

There really is a place called Austin – just not the same Austin where American Idol auditions were held in October.

Viewers of Wednesday's Idol episode were deceived to believe judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson were in the city by the lake after producers initially screened potential contestants last summer. But because of fallout from Katrina, the Fox show decided not to return, instead flying the hopefuls they wanted to put in front of the judges to San Francisco, the network confirmed Friday.

The episode not only failed to reveal the relocation – taking the "reality" out of reality TV – but also went out of its way to imply the judges had gone to Austin to decide which contestants would go on to the Hollywood round. For instance, while airing footage of Mr. Cowell arriving, a woman who didn't like him was shown running away. But she was in Austin, and he wasn't.

"Upon reflection, there should have been a line in the show" explaining that the auditions for the judges were not held in Austin, Fox spokeswoman Michelle Hooper said.

In Friday's weekly Idol conference call with the media, executive producer Ken Warwick said, "It wasn't a big deal."

"Clearly that didn't happen the way it [was shown]," he said. "We have to produce an entertainment program to begin with. We didn't mention it on the air, to be honest, because we thought it wasn't a big deal. ... It was not deliberately done to mislead anybody. We had nothing to gain by misleading people."

In an interview later Friday, Mr. Warwick said the issue was "irrelevant." "The show is about the talent in a place. It's about the talent in that room."

He said he was sorry if some members of the audience felt duped. "I'm sorry if they feel that way, I'm sorry if it appeared that way. It wasn't deliberate."

Host Ryan Seacrest did return to Austin after the judging was taped, so the show would have shots of him on location. During the telecast, he helped fuel the ruse. "Welcome back to Austin," he said with the University of Texas in the background.

Later, a night shot of the city was juxtaposed with a scene of the judges leaving the auditions. "As the light faded, the judges headed out," Mr. Seacrest said.

E-mail mmendoza@dallasnews.com