For most of the decade, American Idol has flattened its TV competition, developed a small stable of pop stars and even launched the career of an Academy Award-winning actress. But after each success, a nagging question would always be asked: How long can this last?
So as overall TV viewership continues to slide and the talent show enters its eighth year (a ripe old age for a network program), Idol's producers aren't taking any chances. They're ready to unveil the biggest changes to the familiar formula since the show's early seasons.
When Idol returns Tuesday, it will have a fourth judge, Grammy-nominated songwriter Kara DioGuardi, a larger field of semifinalists and fewer freak-show auditions that initially made the reality show a cultural phenomenon.
"There's the question of how do you change it up without destroying what you've got?" Idol's executive producer Ken Warwick says. But he adds, "In truth, the biggest problem will always be, from now on, keeping it fresh."
Warwick's dilemma is evident in last year's ratings numbers. While the show's ratings did slide 7 percent, almost 32 million people tuned in to see heartland rocker David Cook win last season's contest. It was one of Idol's best ratings ever and helped make Fox the overall most-watched network in America for the first time.
But the ratings aren't Idol's only concern. Cook and other recent winners like Jordin Sparks and Taylor Hicks have failed to match the post-Idol success of their predecessors. When Hicks arrives in Baltimore next month, he'll be performing not at the 1st Mariner Arena, but at the Hippodrome as part of Grease.
Idol's producers knew change was needed, but not too much (the format of the megahit will remain largely intact). And most of the changes seem designed to find actual fresh faces.
"The thing that always bothers me is that because they know the show so well now ... they are a lot more savvy than they used to be," Warwick says of the auditioners. "So a little naivete, especially in the big cities, has gone. They are very camera-savvy, they know exactly what to say and what to do to get on either the good side of the judges or the bad side. So we have to be a little bit more careful with the people we pick."
As the show ages, it's attracting performers who have already had a shot at the big time (and failed) and, worse yet, professional reality-show contestants who are more interested in stardom than singing.
To help find the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood, DioGuardi will slide between Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul at the judges' table. The acerbic Simon Cowell still gets the last word and will be entrusted to break ties.
But DioGuardi, a 38-year-old native of suburban New York, isn't exactly a stranger to the Idol pop machine. She's a friend of Abdul's; years ago, the two were roommates. And recently, DioGuardi has worked behind the scenes, writing pop-rock cuts for past Idol contestants Clarkson, Underwood and David Archuleta. A singer and owner of Arthouse Entertainment, a resource business for record labels, DioGuardi also has overseen hits for Britney Spears, OneRepublic and Faith Hill. Her expertise and no-nonsense personality add another dimension and a different perspective to the panel.
"She doesn't have a lot of pretense; she tells it like it is," says Stephen Perrine, editor of Best Life magazine, which features DioGuardi in its February issue. "Kara is likely to be tougher on the contestants than Paula is. But she'll do it in a way that's kinder than Simon. We expect her to stay out of the in-fighting and be the calm eye in the storm, and that may allow the other judges to be even more provocative than ever."
The season will also feature for the first time 36 semifinalists, instead of the usual 24. Warwick has also suggested that the "wild card" round, last used in Season 3, could return with the judges choosing some eliminated contestants to advance to the finals. Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken would have been eliminated by viewers early on if not for the wild card round.
The audition episodes will be streamlined, featuring fewer segments of goofy, pitch-challenged hopefuls. The extra time will be spent during the "Hollywood" round, where singers vetted by the judges compete for 36 semifinalist slots. Idol producers have denied that the recent suicide of a woman who auditioned in early rounds of Season 5 affected their decision.
Finally, the Idol Gives Back special, which was well-meaning but slowed the show's momentum, won't return this season. Producers cited the strain of producing the special and the glitzy finale and argued that viewers wouldn't be as likely to contribute amid the worsening recession.
To be fair, the show has always been open to changes. Last year, contestants were allowed to play musical instruments, and when Idol began in the summer of 2002, the show had two glib hosts. (By Season 2, they realized Ryan Seacrest was more than enough.)
Some say the new changes to the Idol formula probably won't diminish its appeal.
"I seriously doubt the changes will be as drastic as the producers have promised," says Sandra Deane, who covers Idol for the Web site AOL Television. "American Idol is nearly indestructible, and there's no way the promised changes in format will hurt the show. The show's success, season to season, ultimately depends on the talent and personality of the contestants. And when that fails, you can always count on a minor scandal around a contestant or judge - or bizarre bickering at the judges' table - to keep it interesting."
Deane says the changes, however minor, are long-overdue.
"You can practically write a script with the judges' banter and reactions: 'You did your thing, dawg,' 'Good for you,' 'I'm being honest ... absolutely dreadful,' " Deane says. "While it's easy to say if it isn't broken, don't fix it, [American Idol] needs to do something to grow viewership, and this is a good start."
Idol producer Warwick says the erosion was inevitable.
"When you get to the eighth season of any series, especially in America, you know you've got to expect logically ... for ratings to diminish slightly," he says. "The truth of the matter is we didn't do that badly."
Warwick says the show's changes weren't born out of desperation.
"There were no panic changes," he says. "This wouldn't have been on TV for eight years if it wasn't doing it right. ... So we are tweaking around, trying to make it a bit more interesting. Some things will work; some things won't. ... I've got eight years of success behind me, so I'm not worried about it."
The addition of Kara DioGuardi isn't the first staff change for American Idol. The hit show has seen several on-screen personalities come and go.
Two hosts : When Idol premiered in 2002, Ryan Seacrest shared the spotlight with comedian Brian Dunkleman. But Dunkleman's sarcastic banter didn't mesh well with the earnest tone of the show, and Seacrest has been solo ever since.
A "special" correspondent : Producers hired former contestant Kristin Holt in Season 2 (2003) to serve as a roving reporter. But her "reports" were far from enlightening.
Celebrity judges: In Season 3 (2004), Idol added celebrity guest judges like Elton John, but it turned out the seasoned pop stars were as bland in their critiques as the cheery Paula Abdul.
American Idol returns at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WBFF, Channel 45.