In two years, Fox’s “American Idol” has minted three new music stars in Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken.
Now the televised talent hunt is trying for more.
“American Idol” returns for its third season Monday — and not a moment too soon for the struggling Fox network. More than 38 million people watched Studdard beat Aiken in last May’s finale, a bigger audience than the Academy Awards.
“It’s as important to our network as ‘Survivor’ is to CBS,” said Gail Berman, Fox’s entertainment president. “It’s as important to our network as ‘Friends’ is to NBC. We need an engine.”
Fox isn’t messing with the elements that made the show a success. Ryan Seacrest is back as host. Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and the caustic Simon Cowell return as the judges. An estimated 80,000 wanna-be stars applied to test their talents.
That’s a lot of excruciating music to sit through.
“There’s only two people every year, or in some cases only one person, who makes a difference, and that’s the terrible thing about the show,” Cowell said. “Of course, every one of the 80,000 think they’re fantastic.”
Word to the wise: If you want to impress the judges, leave the Mariah Carey-like vocal histrionics at home.
Abdul said it’s like “a breath of fresh air” when a singer simply sticks to the melody.
“It’s about the sound of the voice,” Jackson said. “The kids just don’t know that. They’re more impressed and trying to impress people with the vocal gymnastics.”
“A Whole New World” from the Disney movie “Aladdin” wins the judges’ cringe award for the most-butchered song in auditions.
Talent shows on TV have become commonplace in the wake of “American Idol.” CBS has revived “Star Search,” for instance, and NBC’s “Today” show launched its own search for a star. None have approached the ratings impact of “Idol.”
“While others may try to copy us, they will never have the caliber of talent on or off the stage that ‘American Idol’ has,” Berman said.
In this season’s “American Idol” tryouts, the judges said girls held an advantage over guys. The show’s producers say they’re tinkering with the series to make its middle period better. Fans love the train-wreck auditions and the excitement of the finals, but interest lags in the stretch when 32 contestants are whittled down to 12.
They also hope to make better use of guest stars, many of whom don’t find it as easy as Cowell to crush singers’ dreams and are boring as a result.
“The good thing about ‘American Idol’ — watching it and being involved in it — is that it has a sense of humor,” Cowell said. “One of the things that’s missing in the music industry at the moment is that people are taking themselves so seriously, it’s not fun anymore.”
The judges believe Aiken changed the competition forever because of the way he played to the audience’s emotions.
Beneath his innocent looks was a fierce competitor, evident perhaps in how Aiken has overshadowed Studdard since the show ended.
“He played to win, but you didn’t think that,” Jackson said.
Even the ultra-confident Cowell thinks the show is better because it’s the public, and not the judges, who make the final choice of American idol.
“There’s never a shortage of talent,” Abdul said. “You find some of the best talent in the most remote parts of the country and, you know, there’s always someone who drives to make it. And we’d love to see that happen.”