'American Idol' down to big 12

— So far, breathtakingly untalented William Hung is the big hit of this season's "American Idol."

The situation should change today as the 12 freshly minted finalists take the stage for a two-hour show and the chance to really let TV viewers see what they've got.

It's about time, say some discontented observers and tough-love judge Simon Cowell, who's dripping more acid than usual in the third season of the Fox talent extravaganza.

"You'd probably agree that the heats have been fairly lackluster," Cowell told The Associated Press. Even standout finalist La Toya London, 24, of Hawthorne, Calif., earns his gimlet eye.

"She was good, that was a good performance, but there's another part of me that thinks we thought she was great because everyone else is so terrible," he said.

At KZLA, a Los Angeles-area radio station that has avidly followed each season of "American Idol," attitudes toward the show have soured. Last Wednesday, disc jockey Peter Tilden told listeners he was so appalled by the talent this year that he boycotted the wild card special the night before.

But the TV audience is unfazed. Ratings are up 31 percent in total viewers and 26 percent among the advertiser-favored group of adults 18 to 49, happily reports co-executive producer Ken Warwick.

He and the finalists insist viewers know what's good.

"Honestly, I think the competition this year is more tough because everybody is so (musically) diverse in this top 12," said Jasmine Trias, 17.

"I think everybody is so, so talented," said exuberant Jennifer Hudson, 22, of Chicago. "I don't think America's seen our best yet."

Randy Jackson, a judge on the show, believes that Hudson is right and Cowell dead wrong in assessing the field.

"This is the first bunch that we've had that wasn't boring," Jackson said. "With this bunch there definitely will be sparks and wild, crazy antics going on."

They include several poetically named songbirds (Fantasia, Jasmine, Camile), a contingent of teenagers who still have to get in their daily schooling, and a 25-year old mortgage banker, Matthew Rogers.

After the two-hour show tonight, the 12 finalists will be pared down in weekly sing-offs.

Guest judges will be on hand, with Elton John, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and Donna Summer among the prospects. The series culminates with a May 25-26 finale.

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