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'American Idol' Judges Address Persistent Rumors That the Show is Fixed (Q&A)

Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Harry Connick, Jr. and Ryan Seacrest talk about the series' new behind-the-scenes team and why the format "won't ever get old."

American Idol season 13 screening L
Frank Micelotta / FOX
From left: Ryan Seacrest, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Harry Connick, Jr.

What exactly is it about American Idol that keeps viewers coming back season after season? Returning judge Jennifer Lopez has a theory.

“It’s the show that people want to watch,” she told The Hollywood Reporter as Hollywood Week was wrapping up in late December. “You want to see somebody go for their dream, because it’s inspiring. It makes you think you can do it, too. ... Watching those dreams come true -- it won’t ever get old. It’s a format that works.”

Fox certainly hopes so. Battling declining ratings for the sixth consecutive year, the show is looking to new blood -- in the form of judge Harry Connick, Jr. -- and unflinching likability (we're looking at you, Keith Urban) to resurrect the former powerhouse. 

That's a lot of pressure for the trio sitting down in front, along with host Ryan Seacrest, but to hear them tell it, the responsibility of shepherding would-be stars through the Idol machine is a point of pride rather than a source of stress.

Read on for THR's conversation with Idol's principal players. 

Describe each others' judging styles ...

Keith Urban: Harry is bringing a much deeper musical education that everybody’s going to get watching this. It might be over their heads because he'll explain what a pentatonic scale is, but when he starts using those terms later on, people will know what they are.

Jennifer Lopez: Harry’s screaming it out like Tourette’s! But this is what I love about being on the panel with Harry or with Keith, who’s this incredible guitar player -- they come at it from a musicianship that teaches me stuff every single day. So for me, it’s exciting.

Ryan Seacrest: With this group, there’s no second-guessing anything. It just feels meant-to-be. Everyone’s got an incredible respect for one another, and so we enjoy coming to work and we enjoy this process. I think the viewers will see that when we go on the air.

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What kind of direction are new Idol producers Per Blankens and Den of Thieves' Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager providing during tapings?

Harry Connick, Jr.: I was totally surprised when we were going into the Yes and No rooms, they really didn’t say a whole lot to us. We had to be, like, "Wait; should we gather our thoughts? This is HUGE television!" You'd think they’d say, “Hey, Jennifer, can you say this?" But not really.

Lopez: It’s been on for 13 seasons. People know what the show is so they assume that we know what the show is, as well.

Connick: At the heart of it, and I’m kind of blown away because I hoped it would be like this, but it’s really our decision who gets put through. It’s kind of amazing when you think of how big this machine is. I thought that was really cool. Most people want to know, "Is it fixed?" And it’s not.

Lopez: No, it’s not. It wasn’t before and it’s not now.

How was the audition process different than before?

Connick: I think over the course of the auditions it’s gotten more streamlined. We’ve kind of developed a bit of a system. We understand the way we work and seem to have gotten quicker with our decisions. It's moving faster and becomes even more well-oiled as it goes on.

Lopez: We all had to find our way and, by the end, in two seconds we’d know. Sometimes it was almost like a race -- we’d hear them and I'd look and Harry would already have his [decision] down. It wasn’t that we were trying to do it quickly, it just that our ears became finely tuned to what the special stuff was.

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Is Group Day during Hollywood Week really as bad as it looks on television?

Urban: Least favorite day. Everybody’s least favorite day.

Connick: I think it's great because it’s the one day that forces them to do something that they don’t want to do and it’s great exercise. Like, how did they handle it? How do you deal with the discomfort? It's a very quick way for us to see other sides of them that we wouldn’t have seen if they had just come out and sang their powerhouse tune.

Lopez: It also helps us separate, because if you just see them sing, sing, sing -- everybody’s going to do what they do best. But groups start differentiating people from each other in a way that makes it easier for us to go, "OK, this is who should go through."

Urban: Part of that process that I love is, do you have a strong enough sense of who you are so that you don’t get pulled out of that? Even when you’re in a group situation, do you know how to hold your own and stay who you are, not feel like you’ve got to conform?     

Does the search for raw vocal talent go against the grain of what’s on the radio?

Urban: How does that go against what’s on the radio? I think The Lumineers are a great example of someone who doesn’t use any pitch correction on their records. They’re extremely raw-sounding records.

Lopez: If you think of Miley Cyrus and "Wrecking Ball," yes, that’s a really produced record, but she’s a great singer. It’s unfair to say that of pop stars like Ariana Grande. There are great singers out there.

Connick: And there’s a spectrum. I mean there are powerhouse singers in the pop world and there are people that are really raw in the pop world, too. I don’t know if anything’s trending.

Lopez: And that’s the thing -- there’s so much exposure to so many different types of music that anybody can do anything. And I think that’s what’s being reflected on the radio right now. You’re seeing a lot of different stuff.

Seacrest: We’ve seen it with the contestants. They all look different, they come from different places, they dress differently, they’ve got different styles, different textures, and it’s reflective of us as a country.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin; @micheleamabile