'Idol' Tweaks Its Formula to Stay Fresh for Season 8

England's original Pop Idol succeeded with a four-judge panel, and DioGuardi has a strong musical background, he says. However, he has enjoyed "the unique chemistry" of Idol's established trio of himself, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul.

"I generally don't know until I watch this show whether (the new lineup) is a good thing or a bad thing," Cowell says.

Warwick says DioGuardi's mix of youth, industry experience and strong opinions makes her a good fit. He dismisses speculation that DioGuardi's arrival could threaten Abdul's status and is amused by the idea of an Abdul-DioGuardi tandem beating up on Cowell — although the new arrangement gives the latter more power: With four judges, Cowell casts the deciding vote in case of deadlock.

Abdul welcomes DioGuardi, a longtime friend, and likes the idea of having a comrade against Cowell. But she'll miss the dynamic of their three-way arguments. "To me, that was the best part of the threesome, the fights and the push and the pull. … I loved that. Now if it's split down the middle, it goes to Simon."

Newsday pop-music critic Glenn Gamboa praises DioGuardi as "a great songwriter (and) smart woman (who) will bring some spice" to the table. However, he wonders whether the prospect of working with future Idols could cause her to pull her punches.

Phil Gallo, associate editor at Daily Variety, says a fourth judge could reduce the amount of time each panelist has to evaluate a singer. Some feel the influential Cowell, last in line to comment, often gets cut short as it is, not counting his verbal jousting with host Ryan Seacrest. "It might be a little crowded with too many opinions."

Idol is also shortening its sublime/ridiculous auditions from four weeks to three, but it is only cutting one audition episode because of a special Thursday hour on Jan. 29. Although still the highest-rated segment of Idol's season, audition numbers for Season 7 dropped almost 13% from Season 6, the show's most-watched audition shows to date.

Gallo would cut it further, from three weeks to two, but knows it's a major drawing card, especially for train-wreck aficionados who watch only those shows.

Critics regularly question whether judges' comments, particularly Cowell's, are too mean, especially for contestants who may be emotionally unstable. That question arose again after the apparent suicide of former Idol auditioner Paula Goodspeed in November.

Both Warwick and Cowell say the tone and representation at this year's auditions is similar to previous years. The ratio of good to bad "is roughly the same. I've got to entertain. I've got to show an honest cross section of people who walk through that door," Warwick says. As for the commentary, "Sometimes it is mean. So is life."

Hooray for more Hollywood?

Idol has restored the second week of the Hollywood round, which disappeared in recent years. And after being held in different parts of the Los Angeles area in earlier years, it will actually take place in Hollywood, at the Kodak Theatre, home of the Oscars.

Jackson says the extra week gives viewers a chance to see more singers. One constant criticism is an imbalance in early TV time for singers, putting some at a disadvantage later in trying to attract viewer votes. The extra week "gives viewers more insight into who these kids are."

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