'American Idol' Returns With New Judges, New Attitude in Premiere

Contestant James Earl performs in front of the judges. AMERICAN IDOL XIII begins with a two-night, four-hour premiere Wednesday, Jan. 15.

Michael Becker/FOX

After securing its lowest ratings ever in a season during which the judges' feuds often took precedence over the actual raw talent, "American Idol" returned to its roots with a different panel, slightly altered production and -- perhaps most importantly -- a zeroed-in focus on its contestants when it returned to the air Wednesday evening (Jan. 15).

The singing competition kicked off its 13th season with audition stops in Boston, Mass., and Austin, Texas, showcasing the first of a two-night premiere introducing a revitalized, refurbished "Idol" that looks to regain prominence after years of slipping in the ratings while biggest competitior "The Voice" looms nearby. Harry Connick Jr. and former judge Jennifer Lopez joined Keith Urban, the only holdover from 2013, as the trio began its search for the next singing star in America.

While "Idol" largely stuck to its guns, it featured a handful of key alterations that could send the show back to its former standing as a TV juggernaut. Gone was the focus on the judges -- for the most part, of course, barring "Idol" rookie Connick's witty one-liners and endearing attitude. Gone, too, was the nurturing vibe the previous panels hoped to emit, stepping slightly back into Simon Cowell's no-nonsense territory, particularly with Connick's no-holds-barred approach to his critiques -- despite the fact that a vast number of contestants didn't seem to know who he was ("Iwent to a bar and I got drunk because nobody knew who I was," he told Urban, who asked what he'd done that day, after yet another contestant fawned over Lopez).

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Though the show's formula remained largely the same, some of its production value shook up the status quo. Less full, unobstructed performances were shown, with producers often opting to play a talking head of the singer in an interview atop the performance itself. The show also continued to curtail the appearance of the truly awful contestants that caused many viewers to tune in during the audition rounds in the show's early days, instead showing a dud here and there -- such as the flat, unimaginative Sam Atherton and vocal chameleon James Earl.

Then there was what's been deemed as 'The Chamber,' a tiny booth in which contestants attempt to calm their nerves before performing in front of the judges -- while cameras record their every move and emotion.

The show also introduced an interactive voting system during certain commercial breaks, during which viewers can vote whether or not they think a singer will make it to Hollywood or be rejected by tweeting a hashtag in support or against the performer, with results revealed once the show returns to air.

Through its audition rounds in Boston and Austin, "Idol" uncovered talent that could certainly jump all the way into the live shows in Hollywood. There was Austin Percario, a Justin Bieber-esque teen with a raspy vocal but a thin falsetto, and Shanon Wilson, a 24-year-old former defensive lineman with definite soul and, opposite of Percario, a higher register plucked out of a Maxwell performance.

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The show also discovered potential budding songwriters -- like Savion Wright, a tall, gangly 21-year-old guitarist whose original song captivated the judges, or Katelyn Jackson, a teen who penned "Another Angel" after her grandfather suffered a heart attack as she performed onstage.

In all, 46 contestants from the two cities earned tickets to the show's next round, including 16-year-old ball of potential Stephanie Hanvey, raspy-voiced cheerleader Stephanie Petronelli, "Roar" re-inventor Keith London and Sam Woolf, purveyor of Ed Sheeran's "Lego House."

"American Idol" returns Thursday night for the second of its two-night premiere, with stops in Austin and San Francisco, Calif.