PASADENA, Calif. - American Idol's new judging panel sits down together and - surprise! - a civil conversation breaks out.
did you think? We were going to come in with boxing gloves?" jokes
Nicki Minaj, whose recorded tirade against fellow newcomer Mariah Carey
has generated media heat as Season 12 of the Fox singing competition
kicks off Wednesday with the New York auditions (8 ET/PT).
But there's no animosity as the judges - Carey, Minaj, country's Keith Urban and Idol original
Randy Jackson - gather in a crowded hotel meeting room to discuss the
new season. As entourages look on, there is a little competitiveness
between Carey and Minaj, but Minaj pays Carey a compliment, and the
five-octave superstar chooses diplomacy when asked about the panel's
"It's ever-evolving," Carey says, drawing a wry laugh from Urban.
The same could be said for Idol.
The king of singing competitions remains basically the same as when it
premiered in 2002, but new faces and some adjustments are part of what
has become a biennial rebooting. This one comes after a season in which
the show's still-powerhouse audience dropped a dramatic 23% (averaging
19.4 million viewers).
Besides new judges and a return to a four-arbiter panel, changes include:
-- Dividing singers by gender earlier, in the Hollywood Round, which will whittle a field of 276 down to 40 semifinalists.
Expanding the Las Vegas Round to two weeks and making it the first half
of the semifinals. The judges will cut the field from 40 to 20, before
viewers pick the final 10 in the second part of the semis.
Starting the finals with 10 singers, rather than the 12 or 13 who have
made the last cut in previous years. Judges' wild-card picks are out.
-- Reaching farther into the hinterlands for talent. An Idol
bus visited small towns looking for singers, while friends and family
members were able to nominate contestants who were then surprised with
Until the singers appear, the judges are the focus, and Fox reality chief Mike Darnell says they've re-energized the show.
is a lively, entertaining, passionate, argumentative, incredible panel.
... They're more active than the judges were last year. There's more
arguments, more disagreements, just a lot more debate," he says. "Nicki
and Mariah certainly have had their moments, but all of the judges have
had their moments. Keith's had his moments with both girls, and even
Randy, who has been there 11 years, got caught up in it."
producer Nigel Lythgoe didn't like the kind of publicity spawned by the
Carey-Minaj contretemps, but seems amenable to a panel that may never
be lovey-dovey. "They're always going to be prickly. That's part of the
fun," he says. "I don't mind (the panel) being prickly, and I don't mind
them being passionate and arguing about their feelings toward the
Idol apparently will make the most of the situation,
though; in a 45-minute preview of the auditions, producers feature a
montage focusing on Carey and Minaj's reactions to each other.
says he's thrilled with the thoughtful evaluations made by Minaj, the
humanity of Carey and the unflappability of Urban, "a lovely man" who
"can sit in the middle of one of the tiffs and look like a scratching
post, and bang his head on the desk and sort of break the whole thing
up, because we all end up laughing."
The judges themselves seem to
be searching for equilibrium. Carey, who has said she brought in extra
security after Minaj's outburst, emphasized commonality during their
"The truth of the matter is, everyone here
loves music. Everybody here loves what they do outside of the show and I
think has enjoyed some fun moments on the show," she says. "Some
difficult times, some fun moments, and I think the realness is going to
When Urban says he finds Carey's "soft, maternal
vibe" endearing, she responds, "If I don't have it after giving birth to
two babies at once, I'm never going to never have it."
she felt a bond watching Carey interact with contestants. "I would be
thinking, wow, you know what? This is how she acted to me. This is how
she treated me when I was just a fan, saying, 'Mariah, I love you.'
(That's) a great personality to have on a show like this."
platinum-selling rapper/singer/songwriter will leave it to others to
judge the group's chemistry. "We're not watching ourselves," Minaj says.
"Some of these questions can only be truly answered by the viewers."
Some observers aren't optimistic, considering the audience's embrace of previous panels that had more of a family feel.
just a very different identity for the show, and the question is, will
the audience take well to that?" says Buzzfeed Los Angeles bureau chief
Richard Rushfield, author of American Idol: The Untold Story. "It's very hard to picture any chemistry between them."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogger Rodney Ho, who writes about Idol,
calls the 45-minute auditions preview "The Nicki Minaj Show" and says
she "kind of sucked the oxygen out of the room, for better or for
worse." Add that to the fact there are now four judges, instead of
three, and that could cause problems, he says.
"I think the show
always gets bogged down when they bring in four judges," he says. "I
think the live shows are going to have serious problems, because Nicki
is going to have a hard time being shut down."
Idol got a
ratings bump when it introduced new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven
Tyler in 2011, but it took a precipitous dive in their second season,
dropping 28% among the young adults advertisers seek. The Season 11
finale was the least-watched ever, and Idol, while still the most-watched non-sports program, trailed another show - NBC's Sunday Night Football - for the first time in nine seasons.
After a weak fall for Fox, Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate says Idol
likely will not be strong enough to lift the network to a ninth
consecutive seasonal victory among young adults. The show should remain a
power, he says, but likely will drop again in the ratings, based on its
age and a genre crowded with such competitors as NBC's The Voice, which returns in March, and Fox's The X Factor, he says.
"With (its) numbers, any network would take it. But it's not doing 30 million viewers like it did in Year 5," he says.
Darnell says the show's success or failure will ride on the talent. He emphasizes Idol's
rarefied track record, having produced such stars as Kelly Clarkson,
Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson. Last season's winner, Phillip
Phillips, has a huge hit with Home.
"Idol is the
first and the biggest, and it's the only one where people really believe
if you watch and follow that you can make a star. That means the
audience is engaged," he says.
All involved, as they always do,
are promoting this year's singing field as top-notch. After five years
of male winners, Jackson and Minaj predict a female Idol.
amazing stories and characters. People are going to melt when they see
them," Minaj says. "We've found people who don't look or sound anything
like anyone that any viewer of American Idol has ever seen. It really feels brand new."