'Idol' producer: New judges will be nicer

Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler join Randy Jackson on panel

Fox's revamped "American Idol" team broke its media silence Wednesday with the unveiling of a celebrity-filled judging panel and a new emphasis on nurturing talent.

With actress-singer Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler officially announced as judges along with returning veteran Randy Jackson, the mission statement coming from Team Idol was that the show must return to its roots and cultivate a new superstar.

"We spent a great deal of time over the summer thinking: 'How do we re-set? How do we do "Idol" for the next 10 years?' " Fox entertainment chairman Peter Rice said. "Simon Cowell is such a specific personality. Rather than ask who can play Simon Cowell's role, we ultimately decided [that focusing on replacing Cowell] was going to be a limitation."

Rice said his team kept going back to early breakout performers like Carrie Underwood and how finding a true star -- rather than focusing on the judges -- is what made the show successful in its early years. Veteran singers like Tyler and Lopez, in addition to providing potential audience-drawing star wattage, made sense because, as Rice puts it, "These kids are ultimately lining up to live the lives that Jenny and Steven have lived."

He added, "We're going to have idols looking for 'Idols.' "

Both Lopez and Tyler emphasized giving constructive criticism over being blunt or, for that matter, entertaining.

"I believe in tough love, but I don't believe I could ever, as an artist myself, be cruel to another artist," Lopez said. "I think there's always another way to get your point across."

"Whether [contestants] can sing or can't sing or need character, I think I can help with that," said Tyler, who also pledged "to bring some rock to this roller coaster."

If such hints weren't enough, returning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe made it clear the new "Idol" was divorcing itself from ultra-harsh judging. "The days of kicking somebody in the testicles are gone," he said to reporters after the show's news conference.

But the big question remains whether any amount of celebrity shine or impressive performance can compensate for the loss of a personality as perfectly suited for "Idol" as Cowell. Whether producers or judges like it or not, some viewers tuned in specifically to watch Cowell's perfectly phrased groin kicks.

Indeed, based on the news conference, if there's one thing that's going to be missed on the judging panel, it's Cowell's critical eloquence. Tyler seemed to have a tough time forming cohesive answers to simple questions, and Lopez possessed some of Paula Abdul's airiness. Love or hate Cowell, he always had a succinct and unique way of telling each contestant, "I like [or don't] like your performance."

The show's focus on talent will extend to the addition of Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records chairman Jimmy Iovine joining the series as an ongoing mentor to the contestants. Throughout the season, "Idol" cameras will go behind the scenes to show Iovine helping singers improve their craft.

While the media has obsessed about who is filling the judges' chairs, it's the addition of Iovine that might bring the most dramatic changes to the show. The longtime music producer is expected to be the closest thing to "a new Simon" in terms of pointed criticism, while adding a backstage element that brings a new dimension to the format. In addition, Iovine will be working with such top-shelf producers as Timbaland and Polo Da Don to help improve each singer.

"Every week we're going to have the best producers in the world working with these artists," Iovine said. "You're going to see a remarkable difference from week to week. It's going to be an entirely new construct."

Lythgoe, for one, expressed some relief at the chance to muck with the "Idol" formula, which will include having singers stick to their own preferred genre rather than bounce around from country to folk to rock in an attempt to show their versatility.

"If you tried to do anything different with 'Idol' in the past, you'd hear, 'Don't touch it!' " he said.

"As producers, we got sick to death of contestants standing behind a guitar last season," added fellow executive producer Ken Warwick.

The team also addressed rumors that Lopez's reported $12 million deal was held up by her "diva demands." As part of Wednesday's announcement, the company did confirm one element that was a purported holdup: Lopez's production company received an overall development deal with Fox Films.

"I'm kinda used to it," Lopez said about the reports "I was calming the Fox people down, saying: 'It will be gone tomorrow. We know what the truth is; the truth always shows itself.' I was looking forward to getting started."

Added Fox alternative president Mike Darnell: "From the Fox point of view, there were no diva demands. The deal was not tough."

The new judges start on the "Idol" audition trail next week, with the show set to premiere in January. Rice declined to say whether the 10th season would ultimately be more or less expensive than Cowell's final season and declined to make any ratings predictions. The one thing the team agrees on is that ratings will go down if the show doesn't change.

Iovine, slipping into his new "Idol" role as the man who doesn't hold back his opinions, said: "Look at U2 or Bruce Springsteen or any great TV show. Nothing can be the same for 10 years or it's doomed to failure."