'It's an entirely new show,' says exec producer Lythgoe

If you can imagine what it would be like for a former “American Idol” champion to be forced to return to auditioning on the show, that’s what it’s now like for “American Idol” itself.

Though it enters its 10th season premiere on Jan. 19 as television’s most-watched program, “Idol” has as much to prove to its public as it has had since it launched in the summer of 2002. And the people behind “Idol” couldn’t be more aware.

“It’s an entirely new cast, an entirely new show,” exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, himself returning after an absence of involvement in the program, said Tuesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration — “Idol” retains host Ryan Seacrest, judge Randy Jackson and many of its fundamental personnel and attributes, including a ratings history no current nonsports program can match — but the “Idol” team confirmed a sense that the talent show has to face down some skeptics.

Chief among the concerns is the show’s relevancy, both in terms of producing a winner that people care about after a series of lackluster champs and in maintaining viewer interest.

Though the headline news for “Idol” 10 is the introduction of new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler (and the departure of Simon Cowell, Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi), the worry is less about them than the people they will be evaluating. The longtime “Idol” folk are taking the judge transition in stride, while emphasizing the need for format changes to bring out the best in the contestants and help them connect with auds.

The stage between the popular, cutthroat Hollywood round and the “Idol” finals — which exec producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz said “has always been a bit of a weak point” — has been revamped, bringing the talent to Las Vegas to sing Beatles songs live onstage with Cirque du Soleil before leaving with 20 semifinalists.

“Our overarching goal is to get viewers to know our contestants better before we hit the big stage,” Frot-Coutaz said.

In addition, the minimum age to enter has been lowered to 15.

“All of a sudden we had a bunch of very immature kids who came in and left very quickly, or they came in and they were shockingly good,” Lythgoe said. “That has been the biggest surprise to me.”A more positive approach toward contestants, one that’s not surprising given Cowell’s exit, is also a goal, but the means to that end are more nebulous.

Lythgoe said “in the past, we’ve been accused of putting up barriers … instead of helping them through this.”

Record producer Jimmy Iovine, who will serve as an inhouse mentor this season (in contrast to the cavalcade of celebrity mentors that have rotated through on a weekly basis in previous seasons) emphasized the need to help contestants evolve.

“They have to improve every week,” he said. “I believe in the past, they weren’t getting the proper help to improve every week.”

At the same time, no one wants to see the show turn into a lovefest. All three judges pledged to be honest, with Jackson most likely to take on the role of tough lover.

“A little bit more hair on the dog if you will,” Jackson said. “Fewer yos, more nos.”

Tyler, for his part, made enough random and amusingly oddball comments to indicate that he would fill the unintentional humor role that for years was held by Paula Abdul.

Though judgment of “Idol” will begin as soon as the season premiere airs and the first overnight ratings are circulated, the impact of the changes might not even be realized until it can be seen whether the show has produced another Carrie Underwood-like champion or Jennifer Hudson-like finalist.

“I think the mistake people make is ‘If I win or I’m in the top five or 10, I’m guaranteed to be a success,’” Jackson said. “No. It just gives you the chance.”

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