Jan. 10, 2009 -- How long can the dominant but aging "American Idol" keep hitting the high notes?
Television's top-rated series opens Season 8 Tuesday (Fox, 8 ET/PT) with its hugely popular auditions while trying to freshen a format now well into the TV version of middle age.
Although "Idol" is expected to easily maintain its No. 1 status, last season's ratings drop was its biggest yet, Season 7 champ David Cook hasn't ignited the charts, and some wonder how long a devoted fan base will remain loyal in a medium as fickle as television.
To stem "Idol" fatigue, the show has made changes: a fourth judge, Grammy-nominated songwriter Kara DioGuardi; an extra week of Hollywood rounds with the return of group performances; and a larger semifinalist field along with reinstatement of the judges' wild-card picks.
Fox Networks Group CEO Tony Vinciquerra, speaking at a media business conference on Wednesday, said he hopes that Idol finds singers with more personality than last year's batch and that initial talent reports are good. He said the show also plans changes to what he called "very boring" top-12 results shows.
Simon Cowell, "Idol's" severest judge, suggested that tweaks such as the wild cards should make it easier to assemble an intriguing field of singers, the key to audience engagement and an area he also found wanting last season.
"Too many people on the show were like professional reality-show contestants … which made it a little frustrating," he says. "I like all shapes and sizes in the final 12, and I think this year we will have a more interesting and eclectic bunch of people."
Idol also faces stronger competition this year. "NCIS" and "Biggest Loser," its Tuesday rivals, are among the few shows with audience growth this season. And the median age of Idol's audience is up 11 years (from 32 to 43) since its 2002 premiere, says Brad Adgate of ad firm Horizon Media.
Despite the challenges, "Idol" is hardly in midlife-crisis mode. Last year's ratings decline of about 7% (28.2 million) was smaller than the drop in broadcast network viewership; the Tuesday and Wednesday shows each topped No. 3 "Dancing With the Stars" by more than 6 million viewers, and it was even more dominant with the young adults (18 to 49) prized by advertisers.
"My personal opinion is it'll be a carbon copy of last year. Once again, it will be the top-rated show and will help Fox be the top network in 18-to-49," Adgate says. "Since it's another year older and has some stronger competition, my guess is the ratings will continue to decline."
Some viewer loss is expected in an eighth-season show, executive producer Ken Warwick says, but huge changes aren't needed to maintain popularity. "The truth is, if you're successful after (seven) seasons, you're not doing too much wrong."
After three weeks of auditions, well over 100 surviving singers move to the Hollywood round, which begins Feb. 3. The judges' 36 top picks move to the semifinals (starting Feb. 17), with viewers and the judges choosing 12 for the finals (March 10).
Assessing the season's performers will have to wait, but it's not too early to get perspective, both inside and out, on the changes producers hope will add energy, and some adjustments others would like to see.
The fourth judge
Stop the presses! Cowell for once can't make up his mind.
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."
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.
"There's a huge audience of teens and pre-teens watching with their parents. When someone sits at a piano and does a Carole King or James Taylor song, a parent might say, 'I loved that when I was in high school,' " he says. "But they have to get away from the '50s. That's grandma."
Cowell does have one final proposal that has nothing to do with singers or songs. "I'd probably give Ryan a slightly smaller role. And I'd like to change his entrance and give (the judges) a bigger entrance on the show."
Contributing: Edna Gundersen