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'American Idol's' high-wire act

The show is tinkering with the hit's delicate formula to fend off staleness in its eighth season, but that in itself is a risky maneuver.

January 11, 2009|Richard Rushfield

Since its inception, America's leading entertainment juggernaut, "American Idol," has redefined the landscape before it. But this season it will test a new show-business frontier: Can a prime-time show dominate in its eighth season on the air?

For "Idol," ratings are of paramount concern because it will never be enough merely to survive or cling to its prime-time slot. It has demolished virtually all comers, except for CBS' durable crime drama "NCIS," and it must continue to overpower once again or risk losing its uncanny ability to coin genuine (not the 15-minute variety) stars each season.

In a recent interview, "Idol's" executive producer, Ken Warwick, said: "Our challenge is to keep it as interesting as it's always been, put in some changes that keep the whole thing bubbling and buoyant, and just keep people interested.

The biggest problem is that it's been on television for eight seasons. This is the eighth. What do you change? If you are any good at your job, after the third season you've honed it as well as you know how, really. There's the question of how do you change it up without destroying what you've got. In truth, the biggest problem will always be, from now on, keeping it fresh."

This season will see the biggest changes to the "Idol" format since Ryan Seacrest pushed aside Brian Dunkleman to take the front spot solo after the show's first season. Already announced and widely publicized: the addition of a fourth host, Kara DioGuardi, a Grammy-nominated songwriter from New York who has written songs for and with Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion and Gwen Stefani. (She's also worked with former "Idol" singers such as Kelly Clarkson, Bo Bice and Taylor Hicks.)

Since the birth of "Idol," the three-judge formula (expert, nice, mean) has become so ubiquitous in television that one forgets "Idol" actually invented it -- that it was not just present in nature when "Idol" was born. On-screen chemistry is commonly referred to as "lightning in a bottle" by industry professionals -- the hardest quantity in nature to capture and sustain.

With the addition of DioGuardi to the panel, "Idol" has taken the most celebrated, road-tested bottled-electricity in all of show business and thrown in a dose of hydrochloric acid. Will the addition make the contained combustion pulse ever higher, or will it dilute the carefully calibrated elements, causing the bottle to crack and the whole mixture to drip forlornly to the floor?

At this point, it is impossible to have much sense about how things will turn out, but the hanging question mark gives the season some unexpected excitement before it begins.

Other announced changes include the reintroduction of a wild-card round (used in the first two seasons), two full weeks of the high-tension super-drama of Hollywood Week and increased use of backstage footage, documenting the off-screen lives of the contestants. Asked if we will be seeing catfights and Big Brother-like intrigue, Warwick answered, "I'll put it this way: If it's there, then, yes, we will show it."

And we will all be watching -- for at least one season more.

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richard.rushfield@latimes.com

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