Each season, Idol's first several episodes are among its most-watched. They feature auditions with equal parts caterwauling and self-delusion, along with a sprinkling of top singing talent. Auditions from Philadelphia and Dallas will be featured Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.
"Our one secret weapon is the audition shows," Cowell says. "It's like the musical Super Bowl. They are the heart to American Idol, all the craziness, all the emotion, all the fun. In a way, it's become the best comedy in America."
Cowell dismisses complaints that the judges were too mean to some singers last year.
"Sometimes we say things that maybe we shouldn't," he says. "But we're not drowning kittens."
The strike's impact
The dearth of scripted programming could send more viewers Idol's way, although growth isn't likely to be dramatic because so many watch the show already, says Brad Adgate of ad buyer Horizon Media. A less likely possibility, he says, is that Idol could suffer a bit if viewers abandon TV lineups bloated with reality shows because of the writers' strike.
The biggest benefit from the strike, he says, may be that it will prevent bolder scheduling moves against Idol by competing networks. They have kept their strongest shows away from the Idol wave but might have reassessed that strategy after the show's ratings hit a plateau in 2007.
"The other networks might have been a little more likely to counter-program the show," says Adgate, who predicts Fox once again will finish first for the season among viewers ages 18 to 49.
Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says Idol doesn't plan to add extra hours to take advantage of the strike, in keeping with a strategy aimed at not overexposing Fox's prime-time jewel.
Judge Paula Abdul likes the show's plan to focus more on introducing talented young singers to viewers. "We want to look for ways to delve into the fabric of their lives and spend a little more time finding out what makes up the magic of who these kids are," she says.
The singers are worth knowing, host Ryan Seacrest says. "There's a real intensity to these contestants, even the younger ones."
Fans say the lack of diverse talent in last season's contestant field weakened Idol's appeal.
"They could've kept ratings steady (in the finals round) if there had been more variety in the top 12," says Kimberly Lawson, 22, of Bakersfield, Calif. "That's one of the biggest reasons why Season 5 drew in so many people; there was something for everyone. (Last) year, there wasn't a country singer and there wasn't a rocker."
Ryan Welton, 37, of Norman, Okla., says it's only natural that a show as successful as Idol would level off in ratings. He says it may have peaked in Season 5, which many consider to be Idol's best, but that talented singers can keep audience declines to a minimum.
In making slight changes to the show, Idol producers have declined to try to impose a one-fan, one-vote telephone and text-message voting system that some fans say would be fairer to talented singers.
"One of the reasons some viewers have grown weary of Idol is because, at times, certain contestants with what we believe to be superior talent fall victim to contestants who have capitalized on their own cult of personality" to win fans' votes, says Welton, citing the success last season of Sanjaya Malakar, a singer of limited talent who finished seventh.