Fans disagree on whether the judges need to be better this year, too. "I do think the judges mailed it in during Season 6, relative to previous years," Welton says. "Simon needs to be nastier. Paula needs to be nuttier. And Randy needs to invoke more Journey and Mariah Carey name drops."
Fan Eric Phillips, 44, of Gillett, Ark., praises the trio: "You mess with the judges, you mess with what makes American Idol great."
Lythgoe says Idol is well-served by the three bickering judges, who have been with the show from the start. "You speak to anyone about TV judges and it's those three. They've set the benchmark. They're still as childish as ever."
When it is suggested that Cowell occasionally looks bored, Lythgoe responds, "What do you mean, looking bored? He is bored, until a piece of magic comes before him."
Cowell agrees. "Anyone who doesn't get bored in an audition is a liar. Ninety percent (of the singers), I absolutely hate. We're on the hunt to find a new star. At the point I think we've found someone, I'm in a good mood. That's probably three minutes a day," he says, before aiming a dig at "good friend" Abdul. "Paula would sit there 20 hours a day, 365 days a year loving it, because she loves being on TV."
Cowell says he's leaning toward leaving when his contract ends after Season 9, but that he's still excited about doing the show.
"I've yet to see another show which is as good in America," he says. "As long as we retain our energy and enthusiasm for the show, which we have, and we get decent talent to turn up, this could go on for another 20 years."
Contributing: Anthony DeBarros