'American Idol' Freshens Up for Season Eight

Show Will Feature Fewer Auditions, Place More Emphasis on Talent

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Changes are coming to the nation's best-watched entertainment program. Fox's "American Idol" is adding a new judge and reworking how contestants are judged to keep the show fresh as it enters its eighth season.

David Cook was voted the winner last season.
David Cook was voted the winner last season. Credit: Fox
The new season, which starts on Fox Jan. 13, will feature fewer audition episodes and place more emphasis on the people whose talent moves them forward week after week, said Ken Warwick, executive producer at FremantleMedia North America, which produces the popular program. David Cook was voted the winner last season, and he's out promoting his first album post-'Idol'.

A "wild card" round, in which judges can bring an eliminated contestant back into the game, will return. The show also features a fourth judge, songwriter Kara DioGuardi. "We are tweaking around and trying to make it a bit more interesting," Mr. Warwick said.

Giving up ground
Changes to "Idol" have been anticipated since the program gave up some ground last season, when it, like every other program on TV, was faced with more-intense viewer erosion due to a writers strike. Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori told Ad Age in May: "There is no doubt that gravity has to take over, but what doesn't have to happen is creative lethargy, and that will not happen on this show. Those guys are too good at their craft to let that happen. ... Next year, there will be a bit more octane in the gas, and it's all going to come from the courage and creativity of the show runners."

There have been some indications -- other than lower ratings -- that the program is losing steam. Daily conversations about the popular Fox talent show have sharply decreased since 2007, according to a survey of Americans between 13 and 69 conducted earlier in 2008 by Keller Fay Group, a New Brunswick, N.J., market-research firm that specializes in word-of-mouth.

Advertisers no doubt will watch to see if the slight changes help "Idol" keep its reach. The show is perhaps the most expensive on broadcast TV for advertisers, and regularly features product integrations from Ford Motor, Coca-Cola, Apple and AT&T.

Auditioners not so naive anymore
Mr. Warwick said he was interested in focusing more on shows where contestants' emotion run high and less on auditioners looking for free publicity, not a venue in which to showcase their talent. Auditioners "are a lot more savvy than they used to be," he said. "A lot of the naiviete -- especially in the big cities -- has gone."

He also said the new judge, Ms. DioGuardi, was an expert who could show and tell contestants how songs ought to be performed and provide a counterpoint to the aggressive Simon Cowell. Her addition will "change the dynamic" of the program, he said.

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