Five Reasons American Idol Is Still Worth Watching

Rob Moynihan
Michael Becker/Fox

American Idol

In the summer of 2002, the country was captivated by a new reality series with a fairly simple premise: Aspiring singers audition in front of a panel of judges, and viewers vote on which ones they like best. American Idol was a hit that soon began a decade-long ratings domination. As Idol enters its 14th season, the series attempts to reclaim its top spot by refocusing on finding the next Kelly Clarkson-like chart-topper while getting back in tune with viewers.

1. Last season's judges are returning–and they're more invested. Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick, Jr. refreshed the dais last year with their constructive criticism and playful banter. They'll be more hands-on this season, with Urban and Connick occasionally picking up instruments to jam with contestants in the audition room and Lopez honoring one singer's request for a slow dance. ("It was the most fun I'd had in months," Lopez says.) Producers have also cut back on purposely bringing in bad contestants before the judges, much to Connick's delight. "Idol is a very influential and important way to get into the business," Connick says. "But these boneheads coming in and just doing dumb stuff pisses me off."

2. Randy Jackson has been replaced. Idol's top dawg, who stepped down from his position as an original judge at the end of Season 12, served as an adviser to the finalists last year, but his tips fell flat. Enter new mentor Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Big Machine Label Group, who discovered Taylor Swift. "We wanted somebody who was in the nitty-gritty of the music business," says executive producer Trish Kinane. Borchetta will be introduced during Hollywood Week and will be available to contestants throughout the live shows, eventually signing the winner to his label. "He's going to be involved with every decision these kids make," Kinane says.

Frank Micelotta/Fox

3. The talent bar has been set higher. The judges and producers admit that last season's finalists were largely underwhelming and failed to connect with viewers. "Some of them were so sheltered," Connick says. "We thought the Idol experience was going to make them grow, but it doesn't work like that." This year, the judges focus more on first impressions and the strength of auditions, rather than the promise of potential. "We need stars," Lopez says, instead of taking the chance that contestants will become stars.

4. New rounds should result in stronger finalists. To establish a better connection between viewers and contestants, two new rounds will be held between Hollywood Week and the live shows. In the first, the judges will sit down with each of the Top 48 for an intimate conversation to get a better sense of the singers' personalities. Then, the contenders will test their ability to perform at the House of Blues in Hollywood in front of the judges and a crowd of 200. "The judges will be watching to see how contestants handle an audience," Kinane says. "Are they nervous, or do they thrive?" From there, the finalists will advance to the live shows.

5. Idol isn't going anywhere. Even though ratings have dropped from the glory days (only 10.5 million viewers tuned in to last year's finale, compared to 38.1 million in Season 2), Fox brass continues to believe in the series. Executives are also heeding viewer fatigue and will combine the live performance and results shows into single nights. "Every year is a make-or-break year," says David Hill, senior executive vice president of 21st Century Fox. "But I firmly believe that Idol will be a franchise for at least another five years–and hopefully another 10."

American Idol, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8/7c, Fox

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