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TCA: 'American Idol' Judges, Producers Bash the Competition

Sunday's Fox panel was hijacked by comparisons to competitive shows like "The Voice" and "X Factor." Jabbed Randy Jackson: “We will definitely never ever rip off 'Star Trek' with spinning chairs.”

American Idol judges season 11 TCA
Frank Micelotta / FOX

American Idol host Ryan Seacrest along with the show’s three judges, Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, executive producer Ken Warwick, Fox Alternative Programming head Mike Darnell and FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz took the stage at the 2012 Television Critics Association to talk about America’s No. 1 show, but spent most of the panel’s time defending the series’ position against a competing network and its ratings upstart -- NBC’s The Voice.

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American Idol is the gold standard,” Darnell declared. “It’s a phenomenon. What we’re experiencing right now is a wave, but we’ve had several over the last 10 years and this show has stood up extraordinarily tall. Let’s not forget that last year we all sat here and a lot of the scrutiny was suspicious that we couldn’t come back with this type of a show and it came roaring back. This is the show the audience loves.”

Of course, a year ago, Idol had the singing competition show playing field pretty much to itself, but now with X Factor having launched and The Voice hot on the Idol’s heels, it’s a vastly different television landscape. So much so that one journalist even asked Seacrest if he would consider jumping ship and replacing Carson Daly (said Seacrest: “At this point, I only see myself as hosting American Idol and I’m focused on that for this season”) and Kelly Clarkson, Idol’s first ever winner, will appear on its competitor as a mentor – marking the second alum to get significant airtime on NBC (following Idol’s Frenchie Davis). “It’s a compliment to Idol that this show is creating superstars,” said Darnell, before jabbing, “We’re not hiring anyone from The Voice to be on our show.”

Added Warwick: “No other series over the years has produced anything like the number of stars that we have. To be honest, [X Factor UK winner] Leona Lewis was a kind of one-of-a-half-hit star for 10 minutes, but there’s no Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Katharine McPhee, they’re really stars.”

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As if that argument wasn’t convincing enough, Jackson jumped in with his take and didn’t mince words. “The winner of The Voice, as I will remind you, was an artist who had a deal on Capitol for many years -- a failed contract over there, so for that show it was almost like second chance people, it wasn’t like some new artist. It’s a different thing.”

But Jackson holds no grudges towards his former table-mates Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul on X Factor: "They started this whole Idol tradition with us. I think that Idol is still the best TV show of its kind, we’re the original and we invented this game that everybody's copying. So I think Simon has done well with his show, probably not as well as he expected, but we wish him well." 

Frot-Coutaz tried to spin it positively, admitting that “it’s a lot more competitive, but in the end, competition is good for everybody.”

After the panel, Darnell told THR, “We're not [worried about The Voice]…  You have to have a response to these questions and the response is competitive. We're having fun. I wouldn't call it touchy, I'd call it healthy competition.” It echoed a sentiment uttered earlier by Seacrest, when he told a journalist, “We have never sat down before a show and said, ‘How are we going to react to another show?’” Added Jackson: “We will definitely never ever rip off Star Trek like The Voice did with spinning chairs.”

So what about the main reason the dozens of press had gathered in Pasadena? You know, to find out about season 11 of Idol? After all, the game-changing singing competition remains the No. 1 show on primetime television by a country mile -- but lest we forget, it’s maintained that position by only minimally messing with the formula.

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So what can viewers expect of the new season? Outside of Ryan’s hair being a little longer, more of the same. “It hasn’t changed, we’re all the same people,” said judge Lopez. “We’re a little bit more comfortable, we’re still having fun. We have amazing talent, which makes it more exciting.” Indeed, Jackson joked that Lopez was handing out “a lot more No’s,” but not just for the sake of rejection. “I’m not sure if we [should have been] harder -- we’ve got our eyes on the ones that have that magic that we see in either ourselves or other people through the course of our careers, we see that in these kids,” said Tyler.

Added Jackson: “The judges should always call it as they see it, not as people want them to call it -- this is what should happen. What I love about the show is that this is the most authentic talent show -- the way we do it is to help mentor and nurture the talent.” 

“We try to give them advice as we would want it to be given to us, that’s how I always deliver what I’m saying. I want them to hear me, but there’ nothing’s wrong with a little tough love and a little encouragement either,” said Lopez. “And we have our own style and personalities of how we do that, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to get them through to be the winner.”

And if that’s a guy for the fifth year running? “May the best talent win,” said Jackson. “If it’s another boy this year -- in my eyes, that’s who should win. Look at the success of Justin Bieber -- a lot of girls vote for boys.”

As for what might be different this year? The post-Hollywood round, for one. Warwick revealed that because so many contestants were put through, they’ll be weeded out via group numbers where they’re challenged to sing a traditional late 50s song (think: barbershop harmonies) and then again with a solo number. “We took them out of their comfort zone – they had to sing a song that’s nothing like what you’d find on radio today… We’ve had to reinvent those middle rounds to get the numbers down.”

Added Frot-Coutaz: “That center portion of the series is now always going to change up,” but said all other elements will pretty much stay the same. “Just different venues and musical choices.” Indeed, the show returned to Las Vegas this year, but rather than Cirque du Soleil's "Love," the Michael Jackson "Immortal" show may be the backdrop. Idol Gives Back, Darnell said, would not be returning this season through it remains an active charity. 

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin