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JAN
13
3 MOS

The New 'American Idol': A Cheeseburger, a Coke and a Smile (And Shut the F--- Up)

Speaking with THR, the show's judges and producers explain how they had to look back in order to move forward with the floundering Fox hit.

American Idol season 13 judges L
Michael Becker / FOX

The biggest difference viewers will notice when American Idol season 13 kicks off on Jan. 15? Not the snazzy Roman numeral logo or the postcard-inspired, Greetings from Asbury Park-esque graphics denoting each audition city. With a new team in place -- including executive producers Per Blankens; Den of Thieves, comprised of MTV veterans Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager; and David Hill, CEO of Fox Sports Media Group -- the changes are less visual but no less impactful: the show's three judges, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick, Jr., leaning in to confer amongst themselves, agreeing with a pointed commentary rather than rolling their eyes, respecting each others' careers and not gloating in another's failure.

"We stressed that we wanted a panel [of people who] enjoyed each others' company and could actually sit down together or go out to lunch," says Blankens, who was showrunner of the Swedish version of Idol from 2007 through 2011. (During Blankens' last season on the show, it commanded a 51 percent share of the country's total TV viewers). "If we don't have a good time behind the camera, then we can't expect the viewers to have a good time when they see the show."

It's a congeniality that was painfully missing during season 12, when Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj scrapped like two high schoolers, as fellow judges Randy Jackson and Keith Urban struggled to keep the peace. "It was a nightmare," one show insider tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that the casting ended up, "really biting everybody in the ass."

Even now, eight months later, host Ryan Seacrest has a hard time talking about the drama that went down both onscreen and off. "Keith and I got along really well last season," he cracks when asked if he enjoyed going to work last year. Urban swiftly jumps in to elaborate. "There’s more focus in front of the desk this season instead of behind it, which is where it should be," says the country singer.

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With the Fox show's 2013 ratings in free fall (averaging 13.2 million viewers in season 12, down from 17.2 in season 11), matching the numbers of 2002, the powers-that-be, which also include production partners FremantleMedia and CORE Media group, are looking backwards in order to move forward. "Our motto this year is back to basics," says Blankens. "We think that this is the best show there is -- the original that's inspired others -- so it's not that viewers necessarily want that big gimmicky change in order to come back to the TV couches. They want to see the show they've grown to love."

Prager, whose production role is on the floor, while Ignjatovic's is in the control room, agrees. "We're finding the elements that we want to reinvigorate, but each one has to check all those boxes of what makes Idol great."

Indeed, Connick likens the appeal of Idol to that of an American mainstay like cheeseburgers ("It ain’t nothing fancy — it's a familiar, simple formula: 50 years from now, people are still going to be making cheeseburgers.") or a brand like Coca-Cola. "Remember when they came out with new Coke and everybody was upset by it? It couldn't have teed up the return of Coke Classic any better," he explains. "When Coke Classic came out, it exploded even bigger than it was before because it created this void and people missed it. And I think that's what this year can potentially do for this brand. People sort of missed their classic American Idol. And it's back." Adds Lopez, "There can be tons of other sodas out there, but there's only one Coca-Cola, baby."

But the battle for eyeballs and engagement has been a fierce one in recent years, with NBC's The Voice advancing to the front of the pack. Its season five finale, after which Tessanne Chin would be declared winner, drew 12.6 million viewers, while Idol's season 12, won by Candice Glover, notched 12.1 million. And with The Voice's Emmy win for Outstanding Reality-Competition in Sept. 2013 (a prize never achieved by Idol), the competition got more heated. Even former Idol EP Nigel Lythgoe, who was let go following the 2013 finale (and learned of his firing while on vacation in the Bahamas), weighed in on the perceived snub, tweeting that Idol was "The first, the best and the program that changed the face of TV."

With a trailblazer legacy and a proven track record of hits in the music world (among the alums to succeed beyond the show: season one's Kelly Clarkson, season 11's Phillip Phillips and season four's Carrie Underwood, who helped draw nearly 19 million people to NBC's live musical presentation of The Sound of Music), why, then, has Idol lost so much of its luster?

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According to Brad Adgate, Senior VP of Research at Horizon Media, the buzz has simply dissipated. "The show was always mentioned on morning radio and featured on the covers of entertainment magazines. … There was this kind of ancillary press that Idol was always able to get. Now, it's not there." The trick, he says, is to "recapture that in some way." Only then will the show feel relevant to younger viewers "who are leaving in droves."

The judges and producers don’t necessarily disagree, and in an effort to appeal to the younger sect, have made one major change in updating the music. With musical director Rickey Minor returning to the fold after a two-year stint on The Tonight Show (and bringing along season eight finalist Allison Iraheta as a backup singer), season 13's Hollywood Week saw group numbers of songs like Lorde's "Royals" and Alex Clare's "Too Close," an EDM hit. "It was a concerted effort to get fresh music into the show," says Ignjatovic. "We want to reflect what’s popular today."

When later speaking to THR, Lopez cited Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" and newcomer Ariana Grande as "pop stars," yes, but also "great singers." Another plus, said Lopez: "There's exposure to so many different types of music that anybody can do anything. That's what's being reflected on the radio right now, you're seeing a lot of variety."

Viewers may however be surprised to learn that even though the contestants have their choice of many more contemporary songs, plenty still go for the classics, like Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Pink's "Give Me A Reason," for example, was on the Hollywood Week list, but "nobody picked it," a source reveals, still flummoxed.

Perhaps it's a way of testing someone's ability to make the right song choice in a relatively unrestricted environment. As the insider explains, the directive by Idol's new team is to allow "more wide-open themes" so that "everyone will always be able to sing whatever song they want to do."

Adds Ignjatovic, "It's really a simple concept. And it works."

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin