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On the brighter side

While Fox's network competition is stuck in idle, 'American Idol' returns as a numbers-boosting ray of hope on a strike-stricken horizon.

January 13, 2008|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

At midseason, the network television landscape sits still and silent like the corpse-strewn no-man's land of an abandoned battlefield. After the dual apocalypses of a hitless fall followed by the writers strike, the network line-ups have been left as carrion for the buzzards, the pockmarked territory of the dying and those who feed on them.

But just as sweeps month looms, the ground suddenly trembles, ripples radiate across TV nation's coffee mugs. The survivors gaze in the direction of distant thunder from the sands of the desert and wonder what rough beast seems to be slouching toward a new birthday.

Yes, television, "American Idol" has come again.

On Tuesday, the Fox juggernaut roars back onto the airwaves, still sending the rivals fleeing for cover (ABC moved "Lost" to Thursday nights to avoid a head-to-head battle). And proving that fortune truly favors the bold, after what many described as a shaky sixth season (with the franchise showing measurable ratings vulnerability by its finale), the show finds the field emptied of rivals and is greeted by a starving audience eager for proven entertainment value.

Tending to TV's most valuable franchise, the "Idol" team is prepping a season that addresses what they openly admit were missteps last season.

Speaking by phone astride Barbados' Green Monkey golf course, "Idol" co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe basked in his final moments of peace before Season 7's onslaught is unleashed. While the rest of "Idol" nation has slept since Jordin Sparks was crowned champion last May, Lythgoe has been occupied managing two other competition franchise seasons -- "So You Think You Can Dance" (on which he also serves as a judge) and the debutant outing of "The Next Great American Band." But looking ahead to "Idol," he offered some hints at what lies ahead.

The back stories are back

WHILE the drop-bys last season from J.Lo, Bon Jovi and Herman's Hermits' Peter Noone added wild card elements to the proceedings, their visits came at a price. Namely priceless "Idol" air time in a space that had previously been used to showcase contestants' lives and back stories.

"We all felt we made a mistake with 'Idol' by sort of concentrating on the mentors and not so much on the contestants last season," Lythgoe said. "What we did with the 'Dance' show was really push the contestant, and I think it was much better for it. I want to make sure that this season of 'Idol' we don't forget how important it is to concentrate on their stories."

He continued: "the Kellie Picklers, the Kelly Clarksons, the Carrie Underwoods, Bo Bice, all of these people had such great stories, they are really important to us. They are the emotional hooks that bring in other people who aren't just interested in producing the next vocal talent. They want to connect with people and they want that sort of soap opera feel, but knowing this is real life and these kids have been through this in their lives. When you hear about frozen vocal chords and you'll never talk again and here they are singing on a show -- this is magnificent, you know? It's life."

Unfortunately for those pillars of the crumbling recording industry for whom a guest spot on "Idol" is one of the few mega-promotional outlets our culture still offers, the mentor slots fall in the only time available in the tightly packed episodes to feature the taped contestant segments. "The American hour on television is all of 41 minutes and by the time you've sung your songs and Randy says 'dog' five or six times, we're out of time."

"Idol Gives Back," the hybrid telethon/special episode in support of America's and the world's poor, will return. However, to avoid the awkward situation last year when the day of good feeling was nearly spoiled by the requisite duty to kick someone off the show (a duty they sidestepped by granting a surprise amnesty), this year's "Give Back" week will feature three nights of "Idol" -- the third being good-will-free so the execution can proceed on schedule.

For the first time this year, the singers will be allowed to play instruments as well. Lythgoe reports that during the Hollywood week final auditions, this maiden attempt met mixed results. Instruments, he says, were used by "about 30% and out of that 30%, I'd say there were only about 10% of them good. So, it's screwed up! It's very difficult to play the drums and sing 'Hooked on a Feeling' at the same time."

In contrast to last season when many felt the talents were slow to emerge from the pack, Lythgoe predicts that this year will see some significant early favorites. "I think there are three outstanding candidates this year, one of whom I think could really become an 'American Idol.' I'm keeping my fingers crossed. It's always so difficult to tell. We're blind sometimes until we see them get on in front of the camera and how they hold their nerve. But one of them, I have high hopes for him."

God save the mean

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