American Idol is saying goodbye to its charity specials and, with a little luck, its charity cases.
In the wake of some unwanted attention about past auditioners, the show is making a play to be less train wreck enabling and more talent celebrating for its upcoming eighth season (Godspeed, Simon Cowell).
Along with the more overt changes to the show, including the addition of fourth judge Kara DioGuardi and the departure of longtime producer Nigel Lythgoe, Idol exec producer Ken Warwick today unveiled several tweaks to the otherwise rigid format to make it not only more contestant friendly, but to proactively stave off any would-be—and, in Warwick's words, inevitable—ratings drop.
There will now be three weeks of auditions instead of four. Producers decided to stop padding their prime-time hours with cringe-worthy, and possibly dangerous, contestants, and instead reinstate the "Wild Card" system.
"If anybody plays the game rather than is genuine, we tend to shy away from them a little bit," Warwick said. "We have to be a little more careful with the people we pick."
Producers are expected to put a greater spotlight on the auditioners with real talent, as opposed to the freak shows.
"The thing is, I have to give a cross section of the people who turn up," Warwick said in defense of the show's sometimes questionable selection of contestants, brought to the forefront recently in the wake of Paula Goodspeed's apparent suicide. "I don't know how, other than give everybody a psych test when they walk through the door, that we would know.
"We can be criticized, but if I set up this incredible sieve system where all the bad ones never got seen, I'd have a boring show on my hands…Obviously, I'd never contaminate the integrity of the show by putting someone dangerous on."
Not again, anyway.
Another change that will be immediately apparent to the viewers is the number of hopefuls that will make it to February's semifinals: 36 rather than 24. For the first time since the third season, the Wild Card round will return, with judges getting to pick ousted contestants to return to compete.
More than just a gimmick, the Wild Card round is responsible for saving none other than Clay Aiken from premature obscurity.
"If something goes horrifically awry, the judges can fix it," Warwick said.
Not to mention, the Wild Card round will inject some new blood into the middle of the season, which may bring relief if this season's crop of hopefuls, as has been the consensus in recent years past, turn out to be boring.
"Keeps it fresher longer," Warwick said, adding that the reintegrated contestants will help just in case "any of these kids don't have fantastic characters."
It was also announced that American Idol's "Idol Gives Back" charity bonanza will not take place this year, but will return for season nine and continue every other year until the show's end.
"It's a difficult financial time for everybody," Warwick said. "It is an incredible stretch when we're making three, sometimes four hours a week of broadcast TV to add the weight on top of that to keep the standard of the main show up as well as this special."
He also took time out to clear up any lingering talking points about the Idol universe.
New judge DioGuardi, he said, is "fitting in very well."
"She wasn't just culled off the streets. She was one of the record producers that the Idol, once they're voted in, invariably winds up in the studio with. She's probably the best qualified person to know what we're looking for."
Still, he said, Cowell "always had the casting vote."
And as for those persistent rumors about Paula Abdul's job security? She needn't worry.
"There's never been any discussion that we would want to get rid of Paula. She's not in any jeopardy. America loves Paula…She keeps Simon well in control, and for that she's worth her weight in gold."
Warwick, however, is realistic about the success of all the forthcoming Idol tweaks.
"Some things will work, some thing won't. I expect that the [viewing] figures will probably drop a bit. There were no panic changes. This show wouldn't be on the air for eight years if we hadn't got it right."
The eighth season kicks off Jan. 13 on Fox.