When Fox's "American Idol" premiered eight years ago, no major media outlet wrote a story about the little summer replacement series that seemed like a desperate attempt to revive the '80s show "Star Search."
Eight years later, "Idol" has seen a drumroll toward tonight's season premiere that has made the presidential primary seem minimalist and low key. Every fluctuation in the format has been the subject of rumors, counter-rumors, leaks and denials. And this season's major changes -- the potentially risky addition of a fourth judge -- have only fueled the frenzy all the more.
At the center of the media whirlwind is the man who arguably has done more to shape reality television than anyone else: Fox's head of alternative programming, Mike Darnell. The executive said he's excited as he anticipates the reaction to the shake-up within America's most popular television program.
"I've now seen four of the audition cities cut, and they're really good," Darnell said. "Not only is the talent great, but the introduction of the fourth judge is really creating a great dynamic. Better than I expected, to be honest."
The new judge, songwriter Kara DioGuardi, joins the holy judging panel that has formed the show's backbone since its early days. On-air chemistry can be like lightning in a bottle, something hard to capture or replicate, but Darnell believes that DioGuardi will actually heighten -- not detract from -- the show's original elements.
"She's not shy, so she puts up a good fight," he said. "So what it's doing is really adding to the group dynamic. Just by having a good fourth person in there, everybody's comments are changing. They are saying things they didn't say in years past."
Darnell also promises that the male-versus-female dynamic will become more pronounced this season, beginning tonight with a contestant he refers to as "bikini girl."
But the new judge is one of a host of alterations made to the show in response to last year's midseason stall in the ratings. This season there will be a shuffling of the midround rules -- including a wild-card round -- and the use of more backstage footage to underscore the young contestants' emotional agonies.
"We're going back to sort of a raw feel," he said. In the middle rounds, after singing and being judged, the contestants will immediately be confronted by host Ryan Seacrest rather than being allowed to retreat backstage, as in the past.
"So you see if they're upset with what Simon said, you get to see it right away instead of them going backstage," explained Darnell. "It's really the rawness of what's happening. How do they feel right after? How do they feel stepping off that stage? They can't hide it. They can't cover it up."
The changes to television's lone giant also came about to address another issue: The show is aging. "Change is important. As long as you don't change the core of the show, little changes can make a big, big difference. What it says to the audience is we're not out of gas," he said. "Imagine a scripted show that was in its eighth season, you'd do some fictional changes. Some new characters, whatever it may be, and this is our version of that. We just know it's the biggest show on TV, and we better not rest on our laurels because the audience will become apathetic with you."