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Judging Ellen's Debut on "American Idol"

As a judge on "American Idol," Paula Abdul was the side-show that kept fans coming back for more. Tuesday night comedienne Ellen DeGeneres took her first shot at judging the contestants. So what did "Idol" watchers think? CBS News' Hattie Kauffman found out.

While "American Idol" hopefuls gave it their all, the spotlight was clearly on the judges as Ellen took the seat left by Paula Abdul.

She started by teasing Simon Cowell. "I'm coming on and you're leaving," she joked.

But on the Web, she admitted she quickly felt a chill. "Simon's meaner than I thought he would be," Ellen wrote.

Long the designated "mean" judge, Simon's battles with Abdul made for train-wreck television. Like Simon, Ellen proved she could dish it out. "That almost put me to sleep...that was crazy, crazy in a bad way," she told one contestant.

On her own show, she's fun and playful and dances - on "American Idol" she was biting.

"I think people were expecting her to be a replacement for Paula, and she was really a replacement for Simon," TV Guide's William Keck said.

But the judges seemed a bit scary too. As contestants fled the stage in tears, there was no comforting Paula Abdul to tell them to follow their dreams.

"This group was like a pack of wolves," Keck said.

There were reports of behind-the-scenes feuds before the cameras ever rolled. "Simon arrived late. Reports were Ellen was upset she was kept waiting, so there was tension behind the scenes," Keck explained.

The Ellen-Simon experiment won't last long, as Simon says it's his final season on the show.

But for now, the table is full.

Mike Slezak, senior writer for Entertainment Weekly and Kimberly Caldwell, an Idol contestant from season two, stopped by "The Early Show" Wednesday to help us judge Ellen's debut.

Did Ellen live up to the hype?

"I did. I thought she totally fit right in and made herself at home and just like she said, you know, she doesn't have a musical background but she's been on a stage her whole life in front of people being judged. She knows what it's like. She took her personality and spun it into a successful career and so I think that she is the professional when it comes to this," Caldwell, whose debut album "Without Regret" comes out on April 6, said.

"I was a complete skeptic going in," Slezak said. "I thought on her daytime talk show host everyone gets a gold star and I thought she would be too nice but actually last night she was honest. She was articulate. She actually paid attention to the singers, which is something that hasn't happened at the judge's table. She took notes. I was excited to see it. I thought she brought some interesting critiques and put them into sound bites that worked on television."

"Fair to say much needed comic relief. I expected that. Is it safe to say, this is what I thought, she's kind of a mix. Not as mean as Simon. She's constructive but not necessarily mean. She's not as sticky sweet as Paula but she can be kind," co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez remarked.

"I thought it was a breath of fresh air that Ellen was really honest and she was giving constructive criticism and not saying, 'Well, you know, I really like your shoes. You might suck.' I like that she was honest," Caldwell agreed.

"This show is so much about personality. If you have somebody who is in the middle like that, don't you need a Simon who is really out there. He's leaving. You don't have a Paula out there in the other direction. You don't have those extremes anymore," Rodriguez said.

"You have to remember it was also a taped segment. It wasn't her first live show. We didn't get that much time focused on Ellen. With Simon leaving the show, there's a perception that you need someone to steer the ship. 'Idol' is the luxury liner of reality shows. You're not going to leave that in the hands of Randy," Slezak said.

"Ellen runs her own show every day of her life," Caldwell added. "Once Simon steps off, she'll be able to take control. She's a true professional. I think that 'American Idol' will miss Simon. I know I will. He's one of the main reasons why it is such a phenomenon today."

What's their prediction for this season with Ellen?

"The season will go well. The key is that it produces relevant music superstars. As long as people on the judge's panel are paying attention and trying to foster that talent, the show's future is in good hands," Slezak predicted.

Caldwell agreed.

Check out CBS Evening News Anchor Katie Couric's interview below with DeGeneres about American Idol and other topics:

Katie interviews Ellen


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