It's called The Chamber. Several crew members have nicknamed it the Sweatbox. But to American Idol hopefuls, this new photo booth-size capsule is the first stop on their journey to fame and fortune. Host Ryan Seacrest ushers the singers into the cramped compartment — outfitted with three cameras — where they can practice, pray or collect their thoughts before stepping through the door to the adjacent room to audition for judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr."I haven't heard any complaints other than it smells a bit," says Per Blankens, the show's new executive producer, who was brought over from Swedish Idol to oversee a reboot of the aging reality competition. "The show's format works. It's been around for a long time, but if you can add little things to keep it fresh, it's great."Entering its 13th season, Idol is in desperate need of a makeover. Once known in the industry as the Death Star because of its untouchable ratings dominance, last season's installment saw a 25 percent dip in overall viewership compared to the year before. The Season 12 finale also set a record low with just 14.3 million viewers, down 33 percent from the previous year. Much of the blame went to the dysfunctional and combative panel, which consisted of bickering superstars Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, along with Urban and original judge Randy Jackson. Compared to his seatmates last season, Urban describes this year's panel as possessing "an injection of clarity and focus and really wanting to make sure we find artists that can go the distance. None of us are jaded or complacent in our careers, and we have very strong family ties."Lopez — who judged Seasons 10 and 11 with Jackson and Steven Tyler — says she's excited about rejoining the boys club and insists there will be no diva behavior from any member of the panel this year. "We're happy to be able to do this job. Everybody has to be themselves, or else there's an uncomfortability that gets weird or strained," she says. "I just love the show, so when the opportunity arose again, it was kind of meant to be. That's how I looked at it, because I'm a hopeless romantic."Idol's last remaining constant, host Seacrest, describes the judges as having "a deep mutual respect for everyone. They have a profound respect for the franchise, and there is a responsibility they feel that is authentic and genuine."Inside the San Francisco audition room on Oct. 22, the ease and playfulness of the judges' banter is infectious. Lopez and Connick swap advice about choosing schools for their young children. Lopez and Urban flex their musical muscles by harmonizing to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." But when a singer enters, it's back to business, especially when the performance is not up to par. As a young vocalist playing a guitar concludes his audition, Connick launches into a technical rant about incorrect chords and substitutions before delivering the crushing blow: "You have absolutely no idea what you're doing with music."That type of comment has led to another nickname on set: Harsh Harry. "Sometimes when you're honest and specific with somebody who's not used to hearing that type of critique, it certainly can be interpreted as harsh, which is not a bad thing," Connick says. "I would never be intentionally mean or disrespectful to anyone, but I was hired to judge, which means to pass an opinion. The contestants signed up to be judged. It's a pretty easy concept."As for the level of talent this year, Urban notes there is a strong crop of younger singers, as well as numerous guitar players. (For the first time in the show's history, contestants are allowed to audition with the instrument.) "That first strum can tell you everything about them," Urban says. "You could tell within seconds."After holding auditions in seven cities, the judges hand out 212 golden tickets, but that doesn't necessarily mean an automatic trip to Hollywood. In December, the judges and contestants reunited at Santa Monica Airport's Barker Hangar for a new surprise round of eliminations that will air immediately before Hollywood Week. "In this first portion, [the contestants] have actually gotten better as a whole and there is less crumbling," Seacrest observes. "They've been more impressive than we thought when we first met them."This new round is just the first of producers' attempts to make over the middle section of the show — typically the lowest-rated — which, during the past few seasons, has included a post-Hollywood trip to Las Vegas that has now been dropped. Instead, the semifinalists will participate in an intense Rush Week, which Blankens says "is about trying to single out the [talented] kids as fast as possible."Rush Week will also feature Jackson in his new mentor role as he hosts a workshop to prepare finalists before they start performing live. "Randy's going to bring in stylists, vocal coaches, social-media experts — everything you need to know in order to be the next American superstar," Blankens says. (Contrary to speculation, Jackson will not make appearances during the results shows like former mentor Jimmy Iovine.) Once the live shows begin, expect a different aesthetic featuring multiple performing stages to help move through the talent faster. "I think I will be doing a bit more cardio this season," Seacrest quips.It's clear Idol faces an uphill battle to regain its supremacy. The singing-competition marketplace is ever-expanding, and Idol will again air during the same season as the winter edition of NBC's hit The Voice. "Everybody has one goal, and that is to deliver the best possible program and return to the roots of what this show is and why it got to the top," Seacrest says.If there's any pressure facing the judges, they aren't letting on. "This show is like a house that was built to start a neighborhood, but it needed to be remodeled," Connick says. "They needed to redo the wiring, repaint it, put a new roof on, and while other houses are sprouting up, this is the best house on the block again. Everything needs renovation, but it feels fresh and new. From what we've seen, it will be the best year the show's ever had."American Idol premieres Wednesday at 8/7c on Fox.
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