Who will be the next Kelly Clarkson? Or Carrie Underwood? Or Scotty McCreery?
As usual, the question won't be answered until May, but much of the fun is in the journey ... as "American Idol" is determined to prove again. The hugely popular Fox singing competition starts its 11th season Wednesday, Jan. 18, with the last round's panel of judges -- Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler -- back intact, and Ryan Seacrest in his traditional role as host.
Cecile Frot-Coutaz, an "Idol" executive producer from the start, hints the latest round has "more variety than in prior years. We had good turnouts at the stadiums (for the auditions, footage of which always starts an 'Idol' season), a lot of diversity in the talent with some very interesting younger talent and some big voices. It's been interesting."
That should keep things fresh for the "Idol" judges during the weekly Wednesday and Thursday episodes, with Lopez and Tyler going into their sophomore stints. "It's almost like the kids this year have studied the show," Tyler says. "They know what to expect. The ones who are really good, they're the ones Randy and J. Lo and I give the toughest criticism to. We want them to get through.
"You hear a beautiful voice out of a 15-year-old girl, and you ask her, 'Were you in choir? How did you learn how to sing like this? Did you fall from a star?' I don't know how they got here without playing clubs. They just sang every day in their house, or listened to their favorite artist, and this grew out of it. It's astounding to me, and I'm falling in love with it. I wasn't sure last year."
Grammy-winning music icon Tyler claims he was helped by watching video of Clarkson in the first "Idol" season. "You saw her get out of a car after driving hundreds of miles to get there, young and green and wet behind the ears, then she came out a superstar. How much bigger could you get than Kelly Clarkson got at that time? And the same with Carrie Underwood.
"That's the part of the game I'm in it for. I know that between Randy's ear and J. Lo's and mine -- and the melodic sensibility that I got from my father -- we're always going to pick something above and beyond what 'Idol' was before, if I may brag about that."
Last season's contest came down to two country-flavored talents, Lauren Alaina and eventual winner McCreery. "At the very beginning," Frot-Coutaz says, "the show was clearly looking for a pop star. I think over the years, it has broadened in the kinds of contestants it's attracting ... and, therefore, in what it's looking for. Over the years, rockers have come up a little bit more; we've had (Chris) Daughtry, then last year, we had James Durbin.
"We also started to see people like Paul McDonald last year, sort of jazzy performers. This year, we don't have more country than we did before. You could have thought, 'Well, now the country kids are going to show up,' and we do have some. But because we had such diverse talent last year, more diverse people have come to the show. Aspiring artists who would go, 'That show's not for me; it's too commercial,' are now coming. I think that's a real tribute to what the show has become."
Auditions for the 2012 edition of "Idol" were staged in St. Louis, Portland (Ore.), San Diego, Pittsburgh, Charleston (S.C.), Denver, Houston and East Rutherford (N.J.). That meant plenty of travel for Seacrest and the judges, but having been through the process once, Tyler believes he came back to it more prepared for what it is.
"Writing my own songs and going up onstage and being best friends with the guys in the band, it's a lot different than this," he notes. "I'm not going to lie: It was difficult last year, in the sense that I didn't know the game; I didn't know the rules. I'm getting it from the ground up. It wasn't rubbed into me for 10 years.
"I'm seeing it as kids coming in and wanting something bad, but they've got to be that special something. The critiquing is easier for me this year. I want to be honest, but sometimes on television, they're brutally honest for television's sake. That's a little hard for me to be, so as J. Lo has said, you nurture, and they come out even better in the next round. They don't feel put down; they feel massaged with encouragement. And that's worked for us."
Since success breeds similarity, if not direct imitation, "American Idol" has other televised talent competitions as rivals now. "Idol" alum Simon Cowell's "The X Factor," also on Fox, is one, along with "The Voice," "The Sing-Off" and "America's Got Talent" on NBC.
"Idol" will get an extra boost from an additional airing Sunday, Jan. 22, immediately after the Fox telecast of football's NFC Championship game. "It's just a normal audition hour," Frot-Coutaz explains. "We're just trying to stay focused on the show's strengths, such as the warmth and the intimacy, especially in the audition phase."
What keeps viewers coming back to "American Idol" is what keeps Frot-Coutaz pleased to be one of its makers. "I just love the discovery, the unpredictability," she says. "You never know who's going to walk in through the door, and you just want to be wowed.
"There are disappointments, and some of the people who wowed you in the auditions don't sustain it with the pressure. And people you didn't really notice completely blow you away. It's that that makes it really exciting."