Cowell rolled his eyes and raised his eyebrows as contestant Chris Richardson of Chesapeake, Va., followed his performance on Tuesday's show with a comment about the 32 people killed on the campus by a student.
"My hearts and prayers go out to Virginia Tech. I have a lot of friends over there. ... Be strong," Richardson said on stage.
The camera caught Cowell's expression and showed him tapping his hand once, in apparent impatience, on the table in front of him and fellow judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. In contrast, Abdul could be seen nodding in approval.
The show went into damage control Wednesday, with Cowell — known for his acerbic comments — and a series producers denying that he had heard what Richardson said.
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"I just want to absolutely set the record straight," Cowell said during the first few minutes of Wednesday night's show. "I didn't hear what Chris was saying. I may not be the nicest person in the world, but I would never, ever, ever disrespect those families or those victims."
Cowell claimed that he was talking to fellow judge Paula Abdul about Richardson's contention that he deliberately sang "Mayberry" in a nasal tone. He said that he rolled his eyes during their discussion, not paying attention to what Richardson was saying on stage.
On Wednesday the show aired the incident again, showing what viewers saw alongside video from an alternate camera angle of Cowell speaking to Abdul. The video appeared to support his claim.
Cowell said he supported Richardson's comments.
"I did want to clear this one up because, you know, this is a very, very sensitive subject. The irony is that we did want to try and set the right tone on the show. And then something like this happens, and it just starts fanning the flames," Cowell said on Ryan Seacrest's morning show Wednesday. "And people need to understand, there are families involved. It's not right."
Series executive producer Nigel Lythgoe came to Cowell's defense.
"This is a sad time for everyone, so it is especially disheartening that a quick camera cutaway could have been misinterpreted," Lythgoe said in a statement Wednesday, noting that Seacrest opened the show with a statement of sympathy for Virginia Tech.
The network said it had received few complaints about Cowell. One Fox affiliate forwarded two e-mail complaints to the network, which declined to identify the station and its city.
But the Fox station that serves Blacksburg, Va., where Virginia Tech is located, hadn't received any complaints as of midday Wednesday, WFXR station manager Dave Bunnell said from Roanoke, Va.
Bunnell, who watched the show but didn't catch Cowell's reaction, dismissed the matter as unimportant.
"It's just like everything. Everyone second-guesses everything these days," said Bunnell.
He likened criticism of Cowell to questions raised about the university and police handling of Monday's campus attack that left 32 students and faculty and the gunman dead.
"The media should be concentrating on why this person did it, talking about the families affected," Bunnell said. He said he has children enrolled at Virginia Tech.
In Seacrest's opening remarks on the show Tuesday, he said: "At this difficult time, we want to say to all those affected by the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech our thoughts and prayers are with you."
Richardson's performance came about 40 minutes into the hour-long show. Cowell dismissed his effort as "insignificant" and the singer responded by defending himself and remarking on the shooting.
About 15 minutes later in the broadcast, Cowell finished his critique of contestant Blake Lewis and turned again to the shooting.
"I would like to say, on a more serious note, just to pick up on what Ryan said, on behalf of the three of us, that we would also like to offer our best wishes and support to the families of this tragedy, as well," he said.
A call to show producers asking whether the comment was spontaneous or an effort to rectify what the camera had shown earlier was not immediately returned.
Speaking of the singers, Cowell added that it had been "a tricky week" for them.