‘Idol’ hands tweaking mix

Fourth season will mark big changes

“American Idol” will undergo the biggest changes in the show’s history when it returns for its fourth season this month.

Producers of the Fox reality smash are guiding the shifts, which will be most evident to viewers — and the network competish — come late February. That’s when “Idol” will temporarily switch to a three-episodes-per-week format as part of a plan to shake up the process that determines the talent show’s final 12 contestants.

Changes come at a crucial time for both Fox and “Idol.”

Industry insiders expected the skein to start showing signs of age last year. “Idol,” however, confounded analysts by scoring its best ratings in its third season, ending as the year’s No. 1 show in adults 18-49.

A year later, analysts once again are wondering if “Idol,” from FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment, can maintain its momentum when it returns with a two-hour seg on Jan. 18. And as it did last January, Fox once again finds itself hoping “Idol” will return strongly and make up for another disappointing fourth quarter at the web.

Producers say the tinkering isn’t being driven by Fox’s ratings needs or out of fear the skein will suddenly lose its popularity this go-round.

“There’s a lot to be said for, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’ ” “American Idol” exec producer Ken Warwick said. “But Nigel (Lythgoe, also exec producer) and I also discuss on a daily basis how to keep things fresh,” he added. “We get fed up if it’s the same thing over and over again.”

Still, Warwick said, “The show is basically the same.”

And while “Idol” will briefly expand to three episodes per week, Warwick said producers are mindful of not overexposing the show, a la ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

“We’re keeping quite a tight hold on how many shows we do,” he said. “We’re going to do slightly less this year. And there will be a few less specials during the length of the series.”

Among the notable changes to “Idol” this season:

  • The number of initial shows devoted to mass auditions has been expanded to 10 episodes — six in the various audition cities and four in Hollywood. It will take five weeks to get to live performance/elimination shows this season vs. three last season.

One reason for the expansion: A record 100,000 auditions were held –far more than in past years.

  • As previously reported, the age limit on “Idol” wannabes was upped to 28 this year, allowing for “a slightly more mature competitor,” Warwick said. “In some cases, they’re a little more trained, and in some cases, they’re a little more desperate.”

  • For the first time, guest judges will participate in the early audition rounds. Among the celebs participating in these shows (taped months ago): LL Cool J, Gene Simmons, Brandy, Kenny Loggins and Mark McGrath.

While guest hosts take part in the early rounds, “when we get to the main round of 12, there’s a big possibility we won’t have a fourth (celeb) judge,” Warwick said.

  • In past years, auds selected the final 12 from a pool of 32 finalists divided into groups of eight. Now, judges will select a final group of 24 — and divide that group evenly so that there are 12 male and 12 female finalists.

Then, starting Feb. 21, “Idol” will temporarily air three live episodes per week: Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and Wednesdays at 9. The extra Monday shows also will run Feb. 28 and March 7.

Monday and Tuesday segs will be hourlong episodes in which either the men or the women will perform. Wednesday seg will be a results episode, with two men and two women eliminated each week.

By March 9, the final 12 “Idol” contestants will have been selected. That’s also when the show is slated to return to a twice-weekly air schedule.

Warwick said the change is designed to make the whole “Idol” process “more fair.”

“It concerned us that, when you got to the middle section of the show, six contestants would go away altogether each week,” he said. “There would be kids who finished in third place (among one group of eight) who were better than the two kids who went to Hollywood from another group.”

The new system could prompt new criticism of the show, however, because of the mandatory gender equality imposed during the selection of the final 12.

Rival nets also may question whether airing “Idol” three times a week — even for just three weeks –risks oversaturating the show.