Season 13 of American Idol sure caught a lucky break in new judge Harry Connick Jr. Since his debut in January, Connick has received rave reviews from both the show's fans and television critics — but he hasn't paid attention to any of them. "There's just a lot of noise that I don't listen to," Connick says. "I've heard some incredibly nice things, but it stops there. I've got a job to do."
That job would be to inject new life and a positive vibe into the aging Fox reality franchise. The Jan. 15 premiere drew 15.2 million viewers (down from 17.9 million for last year's opener). In its first month, the series averaged 14.2 million viewers and is experiencing a 3 percent rise in DVR playback — not bad, considering Idol was one of the only programs airing original episodes against the Winter Olympics. The show consistently trends on Twitter; social-media sites, including TV Guide Magazine's Facebook page, are filled with pro-Harry comments.
"There is viewer fatigue and a lot more competition out there, so it's not realistic to think you can maintain that audience [from the early seasons]," says Horizon Media research director Brad Adgate. "You're going to have to make changes in the format and introduce characters you feel comfortable with." Enter Connick and fellow judges Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban, who eschew the divalike behavior of previous panelists Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, instead encouraging the contestants through constructive criticism — with the 46-year-old Connick taking the lead.
"This is one of the most fun panels we've ever had," says host Ryan Seacrest, who has worked alongside every lineup since Season 1. In Connick, "we've cast a great brain surgeon, when it comes to music, who knows the details of the organs to help us learn more about them."
However, this year's breakout almost missed his spot on the dais. In late August 2013, after Lopez and Urban had committed to judge, serious negotiations for the third seat were ongoing between Fox and record producer Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, who has collaborated with such Top 40 artists as Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. Those talks fell apart due to a conflict between music labels (Dr. Luke's Sony Music and Idol's Universal Music Group). The network then turned its attention to Connick, whom it had met with earlier in the summer. After Idol producers reviewed the tapes of Connick's guest-mentor stints during Seasons 9 and 12, the deal was formally announced on Sept. 3.
"What you've got with Harry is absolute perfection," says David Hill, 21st Century Fox senior executive vice president and Idol executive producer. "He understands the pressure of being a young artist better than most, because he was a child prodigy who then moved into songwriting and acting. He has done it all."
Connick cut his musical teeth in his hometown of New Orleans. After learning how to play the piano at age 3, he performed as a classically trained musician with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra when he was 9 and played at the famed Tanglewood venue in Massachusetts at just 16. His musical knowledge was also shaped by his time performing on NOLA's Bourbon Street under the tutelage of jazz greats including Ellis Marsalis and Wynton Marsalis.
Connick won his first of three Grammy Awards in 1990 for his contributions to the soundtrack for the film When Harry Met Sally.... In 1993, he released his holiday album When My Heart Finds Christmas, which sold more than three million copies. Connick also found film work in the '90s, acting in such movies as Independence Day and Hope Floats. In 2002, he transitioned to the small screen with a four-season arc on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace as Grace's boyfriend (and eventually husband) Dr. Leo Markus. It was star Debra Messing who introduced Connick to American Idol, bringing him as her guest to the Season 1 finale.
"I was there with Kelly [Clarkson] and Justin [Guarini]!" Connick boasts. "I remember seeing Justin on stage, and he recognized me and waved. I felt special! Justin Guarini waved at me! It was a testament as to how much excitement there was surrounding American Idol. I've been a fan since Day 1."
For more on Harry Connick Jr. and American Idol, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, March 6!