Changes are in store when the eighth season of Fox's "American Idol," kicks off tonight on FOX. Our Jim Halterman went right to the source of what to expect and talked to judge Simon Cowell about what fans can expect when a new crop of singing hopefuls take the stage in hopes of taking the path to the top of the music charts like former "Idol" contestants Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry and last year's winner, David Cook.
The first big news for the new season is the addition of a fourth judge, singer/songwriter and record producer Kara DioGuardi. Never one to mince words, Simon didn't know yet if the addition of another judge is something that will be successful or not. "I have no idea whether this is going to work or not," he said. "I haven't seen the show back yet. It's only when I watch the show back whether we actually know if this has been a good idea or a bad idea. The thing I do support is at least trying new things. Sometimes it works and as you said before, sometimes it doesn't work. That's the delicious thrill of making reality television - you genuinely don't know... I have been very, very happy with this panel for years because we did have a unique chemistry." He then admitted to being a bit torn on the subject himself. "I'm in two minds about this because part of me goes a bit, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' and the other part of me goes, 'Well, it has worked in the U.K.' So we'll have to wait and see." Cowell did add, in regards to DioGuardi's ability to join the judge's table, "She has experience. She's written hit songs. She has an opinion, which is very, very important. She talks a lot... I think she's probably well qualified."
One component to the competition that hasn't been utilized in the past few seasons is the 'wild card' element. By giving a second chance to a contestant who initially failed to make the finals, the competition can be thrown for a loop if that contestant earns enough votes to rejoin the show. Not a bad thing, according to Cowell. "I think the wild card is a good idea. I wasn't crazy about the process we went through the last couple of years where we were given a small group of contestants who you actually got bored with once you hit about show five of the live shows. This way this is a bit more jeopardy and hopefully a bit more fun in the middle stages."
Though he admits to not always being correct in his early thoughts on who would take the title of "American Idol," Cowell did offer that based on the new crop of contestants he has seen, he suspects a man will win this year's lead position in the competition. "When you do the Hollywood week which we did about a month ago," he explained, "you get to see all the contestants for a second time. My memory of that was that the guys overall - maybe five or six of them - were just stronger and they stood out more than the girls. I've said this in the past [and] I've been wrong. Somebody like a Kelly Clarkson can emerge in the middle stages, which you're not expecting. Still, anything can happen."
And what would "American Idol" be without a little controversy. In November, a fan and former "Idol" contestant committed suicide outside of Paula Abdul's house, generating the kind of publicity the show didn't necessarily want or need. Cowell addressed the tragedy and said upfront, "I really don't like referring to this person as a 'stalker' because I don't think that we can talk like that about somebody, so let's refer to her as what I did, which was a fan. What happened was awful. My regret in all of this is that we didn't know how troubled this person was. If I could have gone back in time and known what she was going through, I wish that we could have spent time trying to help her, but we genuinely didn't know."
It has been suggested that "American Idol" is somewhat responsible for what happened but Cowell doesn't agree. "I want to say this - the process on how we select on 'American Idol' is there are open auditions. We don't research people. It's everyone turns up because they want to be on the show. I would assume everyone who auditions for 'American Idol' knows, also, what it's like to audition, i.e. if you're not very good, you're going to get criticized. Often, if I have the time, we will go and talk to the contestants beforehand, before they even audition, and say to them beforehand, 'Look - welcome to 'American Idol.' If any of you don't like criticism, please don't come into the audition room,' and nobody's ever left."
Cowell also defended the producers by adding, "These guys have the utmost integrity as human beings. We wouldn't work for them if they were the kind of people who would deliberately do something like that. We've taken them on their word that they didn't know that this person was as troubled as she was. We have had fans come into the show before. Talking about the producers in the way that they've been portrayed is unfair. It was their decision two years ago to do Idol Gives Back, which raised $120 million for people. These aren't bad people. All they want to do is make a successful show."
Speaking of "Idol Gives Back," the yearly charity event that "American Idol" has organized the past two seasons will not happen this year. "From my perspective," Simon explained, "the reason we haven't done it is this- first of all, with what's happening in the world and America having problems along with the rest of the world, I don't think it feels right to be turning to people who have problems with mortgages, etc, this year, to start donating money to charities when they have enough problems at home. The second issue is that looking at Idol Gives Back in the future I think that we are going to have to up the balance on how much money is going to American charities. I think it's important that we give more. Now, this is my own personal perspective; I'm not talking on behalf of the network. If we do decide to do that, then I think it's very important that we get the right organizations in advance and make sure that the money's going to the right places... I mean, we will be doing this again, but as I said, it just didn't feel appropriate this year."
On to lighter subjects, Cowell couldn't help but express his joy at the success former Idol contestants have had. "I have been happy," he offered. "These aren't easy times in the record business at the moment. The whole point of "American Idol" is that you're giving talented people an opportunity, whereas under normal circumstances you probably wouldn't get a break or a recording deal. When you see these guys selling records, it makes the whole process worthwhile."
Cowell also credited someone who didn't win the title of "American Idol" for making a big impact on the show in terms of rock and roll contestants. "I think the rock thing, particularly Chris Daughtry, he did make a huge difference because a lot of the guys who came on the show, they were kind of fake. They were coming in saying, 'I stand for rock-and-roll,' and I'm going, 'No, you don't, because you're on 'American Idol,' therefore you're conforming.' Someone like Chris, he brought a different type of edge to the show and was incredibly successful."
One final point that Cowell addressed was his combative, yet playful, relationship with fellow judge, Abdul. While Abdul may complain about the Brit during her own interviews, Cowell said he truly felt that there was no problem between the two. "I mean, that's part of the relationship I've had with Paula. I've looked upon it, by the way, in a fun way. I mean, it was never done with any maliciousness. She's never really had an issue with me about it. If I've thought I've gone too far, I've apologized. You know, we've been really, I think, good friends through the process. I thought she took most of this with a sense of humor. If she'd really said to me, 'I don't want you ever to do it again,' I wouldn't do it."
The new season of "American Idol" premieres tonight on FOX and is followed by another episode tomorrow night at 8:00/7:00c.