American Idol

While American Idol hasn't changed its format significantly for its 11th season, there are some surprises in store.

On a call earlier this month, judge Randy Jackson sidestepped questions about the new performance challenges, but teased that everything will be tougher this year — to the point that medics were even called in to treat fainting people auditioning in the Hollywood rounds, which begin Thursday (8/7c, Fox). Is this an indication that Idol has turned up the heat?

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Let's take a look at Jackson's (occasionally vague) hints of what may be in store for the competition:

Hollywood rounds send hopefuls swooning (literally). "We had people fainting and passing out. It was crazy," Jackson said. "More than ever, it was kind of weird. It just shows the intensity of what's going on. This Hollywood Week was the toughest I think we've ever had on the kids. What's interesting about this time is I would glance at the kids waiting to get up to sing... [and they would] stand up for almost every other performer. It was like, 'Wow, they're really good.' You have to see a lot of talent that goes before you, and when you're sitting there with your nerves in a bunch and you're seeing great voice after great voice after talent after talent, I think you really start doubting yourself."

The Judges' Save could get a tweak. "One of the things we've been tossing around and had some ideas about is that judges' save thing," he said. "Last season, we saved Casey, and it was the right time because it was the right person to do that with, but I certainly wish we had another one or two because I think it didn't serve the rest of the team well."

Familiar faces have returned, renewed and improved. "Every year, if you watch the auditions closely, we say, 'You're not ready yet. Maybe you should come back.' Guess what? This year, a lot of them came back," Jackson said with a laugh. "They actually listened to us and they came back. They've gotten better or grown... I think that the only edge that they have is that they've been there before... maybe that helps with the nerves a little bit."

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Howard isn't the only "Stern" judge. "It's Steven [Tyler] and Jennifer [Lopez]'s second year. I think they're being a little bit more stern, not tougher — stern," Jackson said. "They're a little bit more comfortable with it, but they're having a good time, we're all having a really good time. You'll see some change in that in them... It may surprise you."

The Dawg may have learned new catch phrases. "What I do and what I say always changes because we grow and evolve a little bit," he said. "I may not be saying this year, 'Are you in it to win it?' [laughs] I think that one's been retired. That was last season, man. It's so last season! You've got to feel it in the air, come on!"

American Idol airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8/7c on Fox.

How are you liking Season 11 so far? Do you think the competition is tougher?