No more bullying on the new American Idol. That's not how J.Lo rolls.
"We're not here to break these kids down, we're here to help them through it," said incoming Idol judge Jennifer Lopez at Tuesday's TV critics' tour. "We're putting forth to them what we think will help them as artists. It's more fun than I thought it would be."
By all appearances, American Idol will take on a kinder, gentler tone this season. Gone from the judging panel is the famously harsh Simon Cowell and fellow judges Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi - neither of whom hesitated to be sharp with contestants as they saw fit.
There are no bad guys on the new pared-down Idol panel, which teams ever-affable Randy Jackson with Lopez and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. The 62-year-old singer claimed his decision to join the show was about trying new experiences, and giving back.
"I just wanted to test my limitations," shrugged Tyler, looking gaunt but very rock star in his black pantsuit. "I've never done a television show like this. I mean, 40 years I've been on the road. I have my own experience and I know what it takes to get by in this business. And God knows I've been judged all my life."
Change appears to be the operative word for American Idol, which kicks off its 10th season next Wednesday. Launched in 2002, the reality-style singing competition is still the most-watched show on American television, but gradually fading ratings have likely prompted the semi-makeover.
Idol began its ninth season last year with 29 million U.S. viewers and ended the season with five million less; in Canada, the ratings held on strong with a season average of 2.7-million viewers on CTV.
But as might happen with any TV franchise phenomenon, Idol began showing signs of wear. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says the program will now take a more nurturing role in developing its young hopefuls.
"In the past we've been accused of putting up barriers against them, rather than trying to help them through the process," said Lythgoe. "We wanted to change that."
Enter Lopez and Tyler. In clips from next week's opener, the two industry veterans were repeatedly shown offering specific advice to the amateur singers during the audition process and frequently cracking each other up.
"We're both very spontaneous in how we're critiquing each contestant," said Lopez. "We're very honest and in the moment. All the experience I have in this business, everything I've learned, where else could I put it to good use?"
Vital to the revised game plan is making certain contestants that get past the first round are fully-rounded performers. Having a great voice is a starting point, but the new Idol wants to find the next Lady Gaga or Michael Jackson.
"You've got to have the whole deal," said Tyler. "I've learned the show is not just about singing but about character as well. That certain something, I think I know what that is. I hope I can pull it out of them."
Toward the same cause, the new Idol season will bring the weekly presence of famed music producer Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope- Geffen-A&M Records, who will serve as in-house mentor to the young singers.
"I'm coaching them, making sure they're in the right key," said Iovine, who has worked with artists ranging from John Lennon to Dr. Dre. "My role is to help find an original voice, someone with originality and feel, instead of someone sounding like someone else."
Although nobody on the Idol team would admit the show has undergone a flat-out overhaul, viewers should probably expect a slicker singing contest, with more focus on the contestants' personal stories and obstacles.
"It's just a different show," said host Ryan Seacrest. "Simon and I had our banter and people knew us for that, but this is a totally new dynamic. I think viewers will be entertained by it."
And to those young singers most serious about stardom, and who make it to the final rounds, the new Idol judges will not offer shortcuts, but sage advice.
"We'll throw them pearls of wisdom when we can," said Lopez. "You'll definitely see us mentoring. We've had the experience of being on this side of what fame is. We'll give as much as we can."
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