Fox today (Dec. 15) outlined the schedule for the eighth season of "American Idol," which reworks the elimination process to extend the Hollywood round and gives judges the opportunity to send some of their overlooked favorite contestants to the final.

"American Idol" will start airing Jan. 13 with three weeks of audition episodes from East Rutherford, N.J.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; Phoenix; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; and San Juan.

The extended Hollywood rounds will last for two weeks, starting Feb. 3. On Feb. 11, the final 36 will be revealed, with audience voting beginning Feb. 17.

The judges -- now made up of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and songwriter Kara DioGuardi -- will then get a "wild card" round on March 5, after which the top 12 finalists will be set.

"Wherever we can, we want to change things up a bit," executive producer Ken Warwick said. "[Previously] by the final 8, we'd be living with these kids for weeks already. If any of them don't have fantastic characters, it got a bit boring."

Warwick says that of the contestants this season, "there are maybe a couple less bad ones," although he noted that the auditions in San Juan did not go well. "I have to give a cross-section of that people that show up," he said. "If I set up this system where all the bad ones never got seen, I'd have a pretty boring show on my hands."

And while ratings dipped over the course of the show last year, only to rebound for the final, Warwick says it's all part and parcel of a long-running series.

"When you get to the eighth [season] of any series, you've got to expect it, logically, for the ratings to diminish slightly in parts," he said. "The whole of the television audience last year went down -- I believe the average was 12%- and I believe we were 7% down. So really, overall, we didn't do that badly."

In addition, Warwick said to look for more behind-the-scenes drama from the contestants as they proceed through the show -- an element that was included in early seasons and has since been dropped. "I thought that was good, and I'm not sure if there was a reason we stopped doing it," he said. "It very definitely is back in this year."

Warwick said DioGuardi's addition to the judge's panel has mixed up the tone of the show a bit, and that DioGuardi and Abdul often find themselves facing off against Cowell. There are also no plans for the oft-embattled Abdul to leave the show.

"There's never been any discussion that we would want to get rid of Paula," he said. "America loves Paula. She's an integral part of this program. I hope she's there until the show goes off the air. Period."

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