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

Idol is bringing back the group performances, which some enjoy for the snits and arguments that can erupt as tired singers struggle through late nights of practice. "It's always fun," says Warwick, who will show more contestant drama in Hollywood than the show did last year.

Group numbers annoy others. "It really tells you nothing," Gallo says. "It's like having a contest to be an airline pilot and asking players to do stunts on a bicycle."

Cowell says the group efforts are efficient, allowing judges to assess more singers in a shorter time, and a good test for singers. "It starts to really show their true personalities, because if somebody's in trouble, you'll always see it within the group process."

Flipping the wild cards

Viewers will get to pick from 36 semifinalists rather than 24. For three weeks, 12 singers will perform, with the top male and top female moving to the final round, along with the next highest vote-getter. The judges then will give a group of singers a second chance, choosing three for the finals with the restoration of wild-card picks that were dropped after Season 3.

The previous semifinals system, which featured all the singers each week, led to overexposure, Warwick says. "By the time you got to the top eight, you were getting a bit fed up of them."

The judges offer evidence of the value of wild-card picks: Clay Aiken and Jennifer Hudson, two future stars who would have been eliminated. Since the judges have music backgrounds and have seen the singers more than viewers have, they can spot hidden potential or sense a good singer having a bad day.

"There can be some really brilliant singers who didn't get as much airtime," says Abdul, who likes the fact that the finalist field now won't necessarily have six men and six women.

Extra singers may make it harder for viewers to keep track, Gamboa says. "Early on, it's going to be hard for anyone to break out of the crowd."

Tweaking musical choices

Selections for Idol's final-round theme nights are often faulted as fuddy-duddy.

Vinciquerra, at the media conference, said the show needs to bring in stars with greater appeal to younger viewers, who declined at a greater rate than the overall audience. Many of them can't relate to stars such as Dolly Parton and Neil Diamond, who coached singers during last year's finals, he said.

Warwick says he will aim for artists who are a little younger but have enough experience and success to be credible. He plans to do something special to celebrate Motown's 50th anniversary.

As far as the finals round, Cowell would like to see Britney Spears as a mentor, and in a first, Abdul says she hopes to help with the choreography for some of the group numbers.

Jackson says "Idol" tips toward long-established genres because "the music was better." Over the years, the show has expanded beyond pop to showcase country and rock performers, but he isn't optimistic that hip-hop, today's most popular genre, will be represented.

"It's tough because this is not a rapping show. I'd love to find the next Lil Wayne, but it ain't quite that kind of vibe jumping off here. … Hopefully, the next phase of hip-hop is finding somebody who sings and raps like the great Lauryn Hill," he says.

Idol could focus more on melodic cross-generational material from the '70s and '80s and avoid material that's too old or too new, Gallo says.

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