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November 21, 2014

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American Idol’ hopes for a lucky 13th season

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Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP

Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. are seen during the panel of “American Idol” at the Fox Winter 2014 TCA on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, Calif.

LOS ANGELES — Keith Urban was wrapping up a recent interview about "American Idol" when Harry Connick Jr. breezed into a backstage room, ready for his turn.

"He talks and talks and talks," Connick said, gleefully needling his fellow "Idol" judge. "Get out."

Urban replied in kind, telling Connick he'd answered a reporter's questions for him: "I said it would make for a better interview."

The musicians' good-natured digs suggest a fresh start for "American Idol" after a sour season in which the bickering between judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, with Urban stuck in the middle, was anything but entertaining.

Urban, newcomer Connick and Jennifer Lopez, who's returning after a season's absence, have the task of helping the singing contest find its footing and stop a ratings slide in its 13th season that begins Wednesday.

They have help from two new executive producers, replacements for the longtime team that guided "American Idol" through an unprecedented nine-year streak as TV's No. 1 program to the loss of that crown in 2013.

Besides the show's own missteps, other talent shows including NBC's hit "The Voice" and Fox's own "The X Factor," although struggling, have grabbed audience attention.

But the show's ability to rebound shouldn't be underestimated, say producers Per Blankens, who produced the successful Swedish "Idol," and Trish Kinane.

"American Idol" is "still the best format in the world. ... Our job is to go back to basics," Blankens said. That includes "a panel that's good, and like what they're doing, and could consider eating lunch together, because it all starts there."

The judges say they not only enjoy each other's company but also agree their role on the show is secondary.

"The focus should be in the front," Urban said, referring to the young singers he was assessing during a taping last month for the elimination stage known as Hollywood Week.

At a news conference Monday, the country star expanded on the panel's shared view of what is owed the contestants.

"It's a really daunting thing," Urban said. "You know, they've got no microphone, no audience, no band, no music, nothing, and they stand in front of us and sing. And all three of us have so much respect for that."

The judges also need to be educators, Connick said.

"This is my whole mantra for the show: If there's anything I can communicate, passion and education aren't exclusive. People say, 'I just want to play what I feel.' I play what I feel. But the definition of passion to me is learning everything about your craft," the jazz musician and singer said.

With what Kinane called solid "chemistry" in place for the panel, she and Blankens turned their attention to the production itself. The talent search was expanded to include outreach to people unable to get to big-city auditions, and an element called the "chamber" was added.

It involves a private room — save for a camera — in which contestants have a chance to ready themselves for their initial meeting with the judges, whether through rehearsal, prayer or just a grooming check, Kinane said.

Based on viewer comments, "Idol" has compressed the rounds between Hollywood Week and the start of the live telecasts into what's been tagged "rush week." Randy Jackson, stepping from judge into the role of mentor, will hold workshops to help contestants deal with vocal and other challenges.

The songs available for the contest, which have included a notable share of golden oldies, will have more current tunes that the young contestants — and presumably young viewers — can relate to, Blankens said.

The show, which hit a peak of 30.3 million viewers in the 2005-06 season, last year dropped sharply to less than half that, 13.2 million, according to Nielsen company figures.

That was still good enough to keep it comfortably among TV's most-watched programs, but Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly, while expressing optimism, doesn't underestimate the challenge ahead.

"There's a great vibe on the show. ... It feels good," he told reporters Monday, then added: "I anticipate we will be down, just statistically. But I also anticipate that it's going to be a really good season, and I hope we flatten out over the course of the year and have it be a great season for us."

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