"American Idol" enters its seventh season tonight, coming off of the rockiest year in its history, and changes are in store, although they won't be as dramatic as in previous seasons.
Despite its domination of the TV ratings for the past five years, "Idol" producers have always made adjustments along the way. "American Idol 4," for example, saw the age limit for contestants rise to 28, opening the door for singers such as Bo Bice, Constantine Maroulis and Taylor Hicks, and the audition process was split between the sexes to ensure that there would be six men and six women in the top 12.
But, like the show's past winners, some changes have been more successful than others.
On the plus side was dumping co-host Brian Dunkleman after the first season, while last season's songwriting competition, which produced the single "This is My Now," was a bad move. Whoever said change is always for the better clearly never listened to that song, which was chosen for the winners to perform on last year's finale.
Nothing as dramatic as the songwriting competition or an age-limit change is planned for this season. Still, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe owns up to the fact that last season, the show took the focus away from the contestants, their backgrounds and their talent, and it needs to get back on track.
Refocusing the show
Slideshow: ‘American Idol’s’ finalists
But changes aren't made hastily on television's top-rated show. "I'm not into jumping sharks with this program," Lythgoe said in a recent conference call. "What I want to do is ensure that the talent is strong and that is what will make people come back."
When the show was turned over on a nearly weekly basis last season to superstar mentors such as Gwen Stefani, Jennifer Lopez and Jon Bon Jovi, it seemed like “Idol” was more determined to show off which stars were willing to visit rather than giving fans a chance to better know the contestants.
This year, more attention will be paid to who the contestants are, where they come from and why fans should care to vote for them. Last season, relatively little was known about the contestants, which was evident by the fact that Sanjaya's hair was the biggest "personal" story of each week.
"We were so engrossed with the mentors that were particularly good last season, and we focused on their stories and not really on the Melindas," Lythgoe admitted last summer after "American Idol 6" concluded. "And we didn't know them as much as we knew the Kellie Picklers from the season before."
Another of this season’s tweaks will give contestants the chance to play musical instruments during the Hollywood round of the audition process. That's both good and bad news.
"For some it worked out brilliantly. And a couple of others just really crashed and burned very quickly," Lythgoe said. "It's very difficult to sing in tune and play the drums at the same time. It sounded like a complete nightmare. Even Karen Carpenter wasn't that good at doing that."
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Slideshow: ‘Idol’ auditions The contestants might be allowed to play their instruments in the top 12, but Lythgoe hasn't yet decided on that and wants to be careful to keep the competition fair for those who don't have that skill. It is, after all, a singing competition.
And once again, it will also be — at least for one night — a fundraising campaign. "Idol Gives Back" raised more than $75 million last year for underprivileged children, and will return this year on April 9.
However, this time, no one will be dumped the night of the event and, unlike last year, the contestants won't even be tricked into thinking someone might be leaving. Instead, the voting results will probably be revealed on that Thursday, the night after the feel-good campaign concludes.
While there are a couple of big changes on the way, fans shouldn't fret. Despite cries every season that the initial audition process is cruel and mean, there will be no adjustments made to that part of the show.
"We've been showing those people for the last six years," Lythgoe said. "I mean that's what 'American Idol' is in the first stages. It's the lack of talent, if you want to call it that. … No, that's part of the fun of the fair."
Another part of the fun is the banter between host Ryan Seacrest and the three judges, which is something that may never change.
The judges are apparently still up to their old habits in the audition rounds, as Lythgoe said their behavior is "childish, pitiful — the same as every year."
In other words, the more things change — well, you know the rest.
Victor Balta lives in Philadelphia and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.
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