The big "American Idol" roll-out officially kicked off this morning when host Ryan Seacrest, judges Jennifer Lopez, Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler, in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine, Fox president of Alternative Programming Mike Darnell, and executive producers Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick and Cecile Frot-Coutaz took the stage at the biannual Television Critics' Association in Pasadena, Calif.
The fun actually began in the lobby, when Tyler's arrival raised the volume level significantly, an appropriate welcome to what would be 45 minutes of lively discussion. On the agenda: Season 10 -- what's new, what isn't, and how will this new panel, the talent pool and a fresh perspective affect America's No. 1 show.
So first, the changes. Hollywood Week was expanded by a week, but perhaps the biggest reveal at this morning's TCA panel is that over the next two days, 40 contestants will be narrowed down to 20. Each will be allowed two songs -- one of their own choosing and another decided by in-house mentor Iovine -- and can play one musical instrument.
As previously reported, "Idol's" new licensing deal with Universal Music Group means some of pop music's hottest producers -- among them: Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins, Ron Fair and Alex Da Kid -- will work directly with the talent and start developing them sooner than ever. "What's unique so far this year is that I started working when [the judges] started," said Iovine. "My job is to help find someone with an original voice rather than someone who's singing like someone else which is not particularly attractive to the record company." Iovine's main goal, he added, is that the contestants "don't sound the same every week," and he acknowledges that "in the past they weren't getting the proper help to improve."
And that's really what this new incarnation is all about: helping the contestants rather than putting up obstacles. Lythgoe put it best when he said, "It's a lot more about searching for that eventual winner rather than stopping people from getting there. In the past, we might have been accused of putting barriers up against them, and glib remarks rather than helping them through the process."
To that end, Lopez and Tyler seem like the perfect tour guides for a career in music. Lopez is, as reputable producer Jackson remarked repeatedly, a triple threat, while Tyler brings to Idol decades of experience and a voice that's unmatched. "We bring a different perspective than any previous judges before," said Lopez. "We're artists, we've been up there, we've auditioned, we've been through the ranks. [Steven has] toured for, what, 40 years? And I've been in the business a long time, too. There's nothing like having that type of discussion with another artist to help you grow."
By the looks of it, the new Idol is all about discussion, or "collaboration" as Lopez calls it, where every contestant is thoroughly analyzed for their positive attributes. And if they don't pass muster? "If it's terrible, it's terrible," said Jackson, who shrugged off talk of who's "the tough one" this year. "We still honestly give them a full read." Jackson also said that viewers can expect a little less woof and more bite to the dog on season 9. "It's more of an assertive dog," he said. "More hair on the dog, fewer yo, more no's - you're gonna like it a lot, I guarantee it."
Seacrest agreed. "This show is like a sporting event," he said. "I'm inspired by the new life here. Simon [Cowell] and I had our banter, but this is a whole new dynamic I think it'll be fun and funny… [people] will be entertained." Added Tyler: "What Idol's all about is taking it up a notch -- no more, no less."
Still, expectations as far as ratings are concerned were tempered somewhat by Fox Chairman Peter Rice who said he expects Season 10 to "be down." Of course, in Idol world, even a 10% decline would still make it the No. 1 show in America, and that's the best all vested parties -- including Fox, 19 Entertainment, Fremantle Media and Universal Music -- can hope for. Said Rice: "To be No. 1 in its tenth season, that would be an amazing achievement."