‘American Idol’ producers leaning on top hitmakers, new judges for revamped 10th season

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With the season premiere of an extensively overhauled “American Idol” only a week away, the jury’s still out on whether or not the show’s facelift -- which includes a new panel of judges and more business-like hurdles for the contestants -- will benefit the aging talent competition.

But the show’s executive producers and judges, including newbies Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, are promising the shake-ups will make room for the best music talent -- something the show has set out to do for the last 10 seasons and something it has struggled with in recent years.


With a faster elimination coming into the show, producers are getting rid of the round that trims the top 24 contestants to 12 and extending “Hollywood Week” in a bid to allow contestants to hone their talents.

“Those three weeks have always been a weak point for us,” executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz told a room full of reporters at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour in Pasadena on Tuesday. “What we’ve done this year is found another way to address that. We’ve added some musical and performance challenges before we can get to our top 20 by extending ‘Hollywood Week’ by a week. Our overarching goal is to get viewers to know the contestants better by the time we get to that big stage.”

Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said he felt in the past that the show had lost top contenders such as Tamara Gray, Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson too early because the public didn’t get a chance to know them and connect with them. An added week in Hollywood will allow for more of that.

“At the end of the day, it is America that decides. Performance is just as important as the singing,” he said. “America isn’t just gonna go for the best voice. It’s a personality contest as well, just like any show like this.”

In the last few weeks, there has been a great deal of buzz about the “Idol” wannabes facing an onslaught of new challenges that will illustrate them marketing and developing themselves, much closer to how it’s traditionally done in the biz.

Though the idea of contestants making a music video -- which would have undoubtedly included a cheesy product placement for a Ford car -- was nixed, the new crop will be presented with an “Idol” first: the opportunity to sing original songs during the competition.

“We want to be on the cutting edge of music production,” Lythgoe said as host Ryan Seacrest chimed in with his desire to get contestants “on the radio right away.” With Seacrest anchoring his own hit radio show, this could provide the ultimate cross-promotion.

Executive producer Ken Warwick is aware of the potential disaster that allowing them to sing original songs could create -- the show’s major success (and often the contestants’ downfall) is, after all, the theme weeks -- but he says it’s something still being worked out.

“I think that’s gonna be limited. You can’t do a James Taylor [theme] night and let them sing their own song,” Warwick said. “It’s given them the opportunity to showcase themselves more. We’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

With theme weeks getting a much-needed makeover, the show’s producers have brought in some heavy hitters to help steer the contestants in the right direction.

Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Universal Music Group’s Interscope Geffen A&M Records, will serve as an in-house mentor. He said he plans to help contestants find an original voice -- something that will benefit them regardless of where they land.

“Singing like someone else is not particularly attractive to a label. We have four or five great producers making sure they don’t sound the same every week,” he said. “In the past, they weren’t getting the proper help to make sure they were getting better.”

Along with Iovine, hit producer-songwriters such as Rodney Jerkins, Ron Fair, Timbaland and Alex Da Kid will help with song selection and arranging and producing the musical accompaniment.

Alex Da Kid, the Grammy-nominated producer behind Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” and B.o.B.’s “Airplanes,” had just returned from helping the contestants in Las Vegas when he spoke with The Times. He said the evolving format affords the show a level of credibility within the music industry that it once lacked.

“They are trying to find an artist that can live outside [the ‘Idol’] world. They are bringing in a lot of people that make the hits to really give the show that real world element to it. It’s not just about singing some ballad and then crying at the end of it and all the moms calling up the phone to make them win and then not buying their album because they don’t believe in them as an artist,” he joked. “We are making them think of a long-term goal. I think we’re going to be in the studio with them. It’s going to be different. I think if they execute it properly, it can be exciting.”

After last season’s lackluster crop of contenders -- winner Lee DeWyze has had the lowest debut of any previous winner -- there will surely be a curiosity factor in seeing how Tyler and Lopez rejuvenate the judges’ panel.

Though the thought of Lopez joining hasn’t been that welcome among music and “Idol” lovers, the singer-actress-fashionista can actually be an asset to the show. As Seacrest pointed out to skeptics, Lopez “is a different kind of star ... she does everything,” and a packaged artist ripe for marketing and touring deals is what the show is looking for.

Lopez, like Paula Abdul before her, thinks that bringing on seasoned performers such as herself and Tyler is what the contestants need.

“We were in a different perspective, I think, than of the other judges before. We’re artists. We’ve auditioned. We’ve been through the ranks. Steven’s been touring, what, 40 years? And I’ve been in the business for a long time,” Lopez said. “All the experience I had in this business and all that I’ve been through, where else could I put it to good use? We see so much potential, so much artistry there. You can identity, you want to guide them in the right direction.”

Whether or not the show has surpassed its days of finding another star such as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Daughtry or even Hudson remains unclear. As for the lack of success facing current struggling “Idol” alums, longtime judge Randy Jackson makes it abundantly clear that the show won’t solve all the problems facing the music industry today.

“The record has to be great. If you make a great record, the public will buy it. The mistake that people make is they think if they win or they make it to the top [on the show], they are going to be a success,” Jackson said. “No. It just puts you in the brass ring with the people you like. If you have a dance record, you’re going in the brass ring with Lady Gaga and let the best record win.”

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

Bottom: Judges Tyler, left, Lopez and Jackson during Tuesday’s ‘American Idol’ session at the Television Critics Assn.'s winter press tour in Pasadena. Credit: Frank Micelotta / Fox