A year after Simon Cowell announced his departure from American Idol, the new judges panel stepped onto the same stage in Pasadena, Calif., to talk about how different they are from the caustic British judge.
"We're not here to break people down, but we're here to guide people through it," Jennifer Lopez said Tuesday at the Television Critics Association's winter previews.
Viewers will get to weigh in for themselves on Lopez, fellow new judge Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson when Idol's 10th season premieres on Wednesday, Jan. 19 at 8/7c on Fox. Returning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe emphasized a focus on not only finding but also mining a "true artist."
"It's a lot more about searching for that eventual winner rather than stopping people from getting there. The job [of these judges] is to help these kids and help put them on the right path," he said. "We're not just there to chop their legs off from underneath them."
As part of that, Lopez, Jackson and Tyler all emphasized a more collaborative approach at the judges table, which Lythgoe said was the key to Idol's initial success. "People forget that nobody knew Simon Cowell when he came here, nobody really knew Randy, and they said that Paula was past it," he said. "It is how you come together and what you present as a panel much more than individuals."
Even Jackson, who will now be the last to weigh in on each contestant, said he would be "more of an assertive dawg... Fewer 'yo's' and less 'dawgs.'"
"Maybe a little more hair on the dog," Jackson said. "I think it's just a different kind of panel."
In other words, no one is looking to be the new Cowell. "It's important that when you have such a change in your cast that your show evolves with it... Otherwise, you're putting a new cast into someone else's show," executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz said. "It isn't a question of replacing."
This season, contestants will be able to look to new in-house music mentor and record company chairman Jimmy Iovine for help. "My role, I think, is to help and make sure we find an original voice and a contestant that's going to sing with their own voice rather than sing like someone else, which is not attractive to a record company," Iovine said.
The veteran record producer said his role will include coaching contestants, making sure they're on the right key and making sure that their performances improve week-to-week. "I believe in the past they weren't getting the proper help to improve it," he said.
Added Jackson: "It's going to give these kids a better chance at being successful after the show."
Producers are also hoping that viewers will better know the contestants by the time voting begins and the pool has been whittled down to 20. By that time, viewers will have already spent a great deal of time getting acquainted with the top 40, who all made a trip to Las Vegas where they were tasked with learning a Beatles song overnight and performing it. "Our overarching goal is to get the viewers to get to know the contestants better by the time they hit that top 20 stage," Frot-Coutaz said. "Hopefully by then, they'll have a better engagement and a better sense of who they are not only as singers, but as characters and personalities."
Following the back-to-back victories of singer-songwriters Kris Allen and Lee Dewyze, Lythgoe said there would be limitations on how often Idol hopefuls will be able to play their own instruments. "[Producers] felt as though they had a bunch of strummers rather than guitarists or musicians," Lythgoe said. "[Contestants] hid behind their guitars and certainly we want to avoid that."
Lythgoe said another new rule — allowing contestants as young as 15 to compete — has already made a big impact. "The biggest thing that's happened this year is opening it up to 15-year-olds. All of a sudden we had either a bunch of very immature kids that came in and left very quickly, or they came in and they were shockingly good," he said. "That's been the biggest surprise to me because I was slightly worried that we'd get a lot of kids come and cry their eyes out, but it's the 28 and 29-year-olds that are crying their eyes out."