When a husky, mustached auditioner awkwardly snaps his way through Billy Joel's "The Longest Time" in front of Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson, something totally out of the ordinary happens: They don't make fun of him.
Instead, the new "American Idol" judging team encourages him to become a disc jockey instead of a singer.
It seems the essence of Simon Cowell has been exorcised from the 10th season of "Idol" (premiering Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET). If clips of the first series of auditions are any indication, Tyler and Lopez will be hugging and kissing more "Idol" wannabes in their inaugural season than Cowell ever did in his nine nasty years on the Fox singing competition.
"I think with every artist — and Jennifer and Steven are legendary artists — you have a lot of warmth and a lot of nurturing," said Jackson, the lone original judge remaining on the panel. "That's what happens. We've seen it in other seasons when we've had artists come in and mentor the singers. They really love on these kids, and I think that's good."
It's not the first time "Idol" has injected such niceness into its permanent judging panel. One year ago, viewers were preparing for chipper talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who acknowledged she had no music industry experience, to take a seat behind the table. She left after one season because she said it was hard to judge people and hurt their feelings.
The departures of DeGeneres, Cowell and two-term judge Kara DioGuardi have paved the way for a new kind of "Idol," one that will either bounce back from a ratings slump or slip farther away from the top spot. American viewers have never known an "Idol" that doesn't feature Cowell's rolling eyes, one-liners or antagonistic adjectives. Will they embrace it?
"We're certainly back to having fun," said executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who rejoined the singing competition after a two-year hiatus. "At some point along the way, and we're certainly all guilty of it, we started taking ourselves too seriously. I know the ratings are a serious game, but as far as I'm concerned, my job and their job is to generate fun."
Such an attitude adjustment isn't confined to "Idol." Paula Abdul, the original heart of the "Idol" panel, has taken her fairy godmother routine to the new CBS hip-shaking competition "Live to Dance," where she's quick to remind everyone that she's now serving as a mentor — not a judge — though she and her expert team do give gold stars to worthy dancers.
"It's not about, 'Oooh. You're eliminated. You didn't make it,'" Abdul said of the show's dismissal ritual at the West Coast auditions last year. "It's about a celebration of who is advancing to the finals. It's a paradigm shift. It's about how we're going to, as experts, help these acts to nail that next audition, even though they're not making this one."
"Live to Dance" is already favoring sugar over spice, judging by last week's first semifinal lovefest. Abdul, along with Michael Jackson's "This Is It" choreographer Travis Payne and former Pussycat Dolls member Kimberly Wyatt, handed out 11 gold stars and seven dreaded red ones, with just one act receiving unanimous disapproval from the show's three experts.
Perhaps the "Live to Dance" experts are taking a cue from the "Dancing With the Stars" judges, who have typically treated celebrities-turned-dancers with kid gloves. They were particularly pleasant last season to Bristol Palin, even though fellow competitors such as Brandy, Kyle Massey and Jennifer Grey continually out-danced Sarah Palin's daughter.
When lippy Bruno Tonioli dared to deem Michael Bolton's jive the worst he'd ever seen, the audience was shocked and the crooner was outraged, later demanding an apology. It's a line that all reality TV judges must balance. If they're too rude, the audience will write them off as being mean for mean's sake. If they're too sweet, they'll lose viewers' trust.
"I'm very honest, but I don't go out of my way to be mean or clever," said singer-songwriter Jewel, who is judging and hosting Bravo's upcoming "Platinum Hit" songwriting competition. "I do think the point is to make people better, and I don't think you do any favors by sugarcoating anything. At the same time, I don't believe in dashing anyone's dreams."
The nice-not-naughty approach isn't limited to song-and-dance shows. Gordon Ramsay, perhaps the cruelest man in reality TV, simmered his "Hell's Kitchen" temper last year for the amateur cooking contest "MasterChef," which has been renewed for a second season, while the "Top Chef" judges seem hard pressed to find fault in this season's dishes.
That might be because it's an all-stars edition of "Top Chef" — or maybe reality TV judges really have become tamer over time. Of course, it might just be a phase. That will likely be determined over the course of this remixed "Idol" and ultimately when Cowell returns to the U.S. later this year with his British star-making competition "The X Factor."
Even a good-natured judge can be pushed to the limit, as Tyler proved during a taping of "Hollywood Week" auditions.
"You took a good pop song and you beat it to death," he bluntly told four contestants who'd joined together for a group-performance segment.