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It’s Fox’s ‘Idol’ to the rescue

Megahit's new season seen as key during stike

Having come to Fox’s rescue on more than one occasion, “American Idol” this year faces a far tougher mission: keeping the lights on in TV land during one of the medium’s darkest hours.

A one-two punch of lower fall ratings and a crippling writers strike has pretty much put the season in turnaround. Now, just like the return of the latenight talkers, industryites are praying the reappearance of “Idol” will be a shot in the arm for all the nets, not just Fox.

“It’s important to show that network TV is still healthy and able to get through a strike,” one wag says, noting that reality shows are already proving to be potent strike-contingency programming.

NBC, for example, has seen boffo numbers from “American Gladiators,” “Deal or No Deal” and “The Biggest Loser.” And ABC’s Wednesday duo of “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” are doing as well or better than the scripted hits they replaced.

Of course, it’s possible that the heretofore bullet-proof “Idol” may have finally met its match in the WGA strike. As scripted fare continues to disappear from the nets, viewers may flip away from all network television altogether — impacting “Idol” in the process.

“I can look at it as glass half-empty: If all of a sudden broadcast viewership and HUT (homes using television) levels are down, could ‘Idol’ go down?” asks Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Liguori.

Nonetheless, most rivals believe Fox can only be helped by even softer-than-usual competish, allowing “Idol” to flourish in a year where it might otherwise have seen some erosion. “Idol” is still a monster: It ended last year, once again, as TV’s top show, attracting more than 30 million viewers on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

Liguori, for one, believes “Idol” is too much of an institution to be impacted much, either way, by the strike.

“Strike or no strike, January is ‘Idol’ season,” Liguori says. “I don’t think a lot about how the strike affects ‘Idol.’ ”

The exec also promises to show restraint and run the same number of “Idol” episodes as usual (a huge percentage of the net’s sked anyway), even if the strike forces Fox to scramble and fill scheduling holes later in the season.

“We avoid the temptation here,” he says.

What may impact this year’s bow is the general feeling that last year’s edition was a tad lackluster. The show saw some ratings declines as the season progressed, and the ultimate showdown between Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis didn’t generate as much excitement as past final faceoffs.

Even uber judge Simon Cowell wasn’t wowed by the “Idol” class of 2007.

“I think last year just wasn’t one of our better seasons,” the snarky Brit says, adding that to some degree, producers “are at the mercy of who shows up for the competition.”

Of course, Simon being, well, Simon, he has some notes for his “Idol” producers.

“The show has got to look better. It’s got to be more fun as a show,” he says. “It absolutely comes down to the content of what we provide the viewers.”

Exec producer Nigel Lythgoe concedes that mistakes were made last year. For starters, Lythgoe says the show spent too much time on big-name guest mentors and performers, at the expense of investing viewers in who’s who (particularly early in the show’s competish).

“We need to put our hand up and take the blame,” he says. “We missed out on telling the best stories. If (contestants) were uninteresting, it’s because we made them uninteresting.”

As a result, “Idol” is looking to shake things up this year by spending more time on those contestant backstories.

“I want to give up that time and focus on the kids,” Lythgoe says. “It’s the emotional hooks that sell us, and get us watching every week. I don’t think last year we were necessarily an appointment to view. There wasn’t a ‘I want to watch Bo Bice win’ or ‘I want to see Justin Guarini get kicked off’ feeling to the show.”

Already, the marketing of “Idol” has reflected that change, Liguori says.

“We’ve had our promos talk a little bit more about ‘I’m from Nebraska, I’m a cotton candy maker,’ and ‘I’m from Oklahoma, I’m a cowboy,’ ” he says. “We’re basically trying to set it up that this is a show about people with stories. … It’s about people who think they’re good (singers) and (are) not, and people who think they’re good and are great.”

The behind-the-scenes emphasis will also mean more airtime for contestants’ friends and families. Lythgoe notes that the singers themselves may have no connection with some of the older music — think David Bowie tunes — but their parents might.

Of course, that’s not to say the show will eschew mentors and celeb guests entirely. After all, part of the singers’ “Idol” experience includes those brushes with superstars like Stevie Wonder or Jennifer Lopez.

“It’s just an amazing journey they’re on,” Lythgoe says. “We just got carried away with it.”

That’s not the only change “Idol” fans will see when the talent competish returns Jan. 12. Also on tap:

  • A new set and opening graphics are in the works. The backdrops for “Idol’s” performance shows will now look much bigger, thanks to giant gyroscopes and towers.

As for the very familiar computerized opening titles, Lythgoe was still deciding whether to go with a drastically different opening featuring a real female model (vs. the traditional unisex computerized singer).

  • Some auditioning contestants will be seen playing instruments rather than simply singing in front of a backdrop. “There’s an awful lot of musical talent out there that’s not just about singing,” Lythgoe says.

  • Three farewell songs, as opposed to one (in last year’s case, Daughtry’s “Home”). The first, to be used during the early rounds of the competition, will be “Hollywood Is Not America” by Ferras.

Lythgoe is keeping a lid on the song to be used during the final round of 12, but hints that a “major recording star” has covered a classic hit.

One formula that Lythgoe makes no apologies for: The occasional bad singer (last year, Sanjaya) who becomes a punchline, but gets viewers invested in the show.

“As a producer of the show, I was grateful for Sanjaya last season,” Lythgoe says. “It’s my job to make an interesting TV show.”

Lythgoe points out that it’s not his job — or the show’s — to keep tabs on the contestants’ singing careers afterward. That’s why he’s not too fazed by the recent flurry of “Idol” alums who have been dropped from major label rosters.

The bloom has started to come off “American Idol” in music sales. Debuts from last season’s top two, Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis, have posted numbers that pale in comparison with previous “AI” finalists. And in the last several months, BMG labels have dropped season five’s final two, Taylor Hicks and Katherine McPhee, after just one album each, joining Ruben Studdard and Bo Bice among “AI” free agents.

On the flip side, the careers of several former “Idols” — including Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson — remain strong. “Each and every year is different,” Liguori says. “The table gets reset. The audience is aware that maybe this year, the biggest of all the ‘Idol’ stars will come out of it. I really do believe that’s part of the viewing experience, that anticipation of who’s next.”

Just to make sure, Liguori and new marketing honcho Joe Earley have come up with a marketing campaign Liguori calls “better than it has ever been.” But, he adds, “ultimately, we as a network are nothing but on that surfboard, and ‘Idol’ is the wave. Some years it’s a huge wave, and some years it’s not as big.”

For his part, Cowell isn’t worried about “Idol’s” future.

“It’s a very, very well-made show that’s got a better cast this (season),” he says. Contestant-wise, “I will go on record as saying this is one of the strongest years we’ve had.”