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American Idol: What You Must Know About Season 6!

Are the words "This is American Idol" music to your ears? Then brace yourself: Fox's unstoppable ratings juggernaut returns this week — the first auditions unspool Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 pm/ET — for a sixth season of off-key wannabes and future chart-toppers. We tracked down the show's three judges, two producers and one excitable host and got them to reveal exclusive scoop on what just might be Idol's most unpredictable year yet. Missing the early episodes would be a huge mistake. There are generally two reasons to sit through Idol's initial auditions: to catch the drama created by those who are A) tone-deaf or B) have Lifetime-movie sob stories (such as Kellie Pickler, who revealed at her audition last year that Mom had

Shawna Malcom

Are the words "This is American Idol" music to your ears? Then brace yourself: Fox's unstoppable ratings juggernaut returns this week — the first auditions unspool Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 pm/ET — for a sixth season of off-key wannabes and future chart-toppers. We tracked down the show's three judges, two producers and one excitable host and got them to reveal exclusive scoop on what just might be Idol's most unpredictable year yet.

Missing the early episodes would be a huge mistake.
There are generallytwo reasons to sit through Idol's initialauditions: to catch the drama createdby those who are A) tone-deaf or B)have Lifetime-movie sob stories (suchas Kellie Pickler, who revealed at heraudition last year thatMom had abandoned her and Dad wasin jail). The first city to get the auditiontreatment, Minneapolis, waschock-full of the latter, according toexecutive producer Cécile Frot-Coutaz."We have some great stories — somereally sad and some inspirational," shepromises. "You'll see a lot of heart."Seattle, on the other hand, was allabout damaged eardrums. Host RyanSeacrest recalls the first of two daysspent in the Pacific Northwest, whenhe sat down for a lunch break with thethree judges. "We just looked at eachother, jaws dropped, like, 'Where havethese people come from?'" he says.As chronically cranky judge SimonCowell puts it, "I hated everyone whoauditioned." Surprisingly, he did notstorm out of the room, as he has in thepast when frustrated by a lack of talent.But, he notes, "There were a lot of [contestants]who went nuts at me andwalked out."

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A whopping 103,000 hopefuls auditioned, and, Seattle aside, they weren't all William Hungs.
In fact, Season6 may boast the biggest talent pool yet."America always has had the greatestsingers in the world," Cowell proclaims."We've definitely found that."Everybody has his or her early favorites.Paula Abdul is gaga over a handfulof guys, whom she describes as "edgierthan the girls." Randy Jackson favors"someone with curly hair," and [executive producer Ken] Warwickraves about a girl who "is gonnagive Aretha Franklin a run for hermoney." Still, they all agree that of thosewho made it through to Hollywoodthis year, there is no clear Fantasia-esquefront-runner. This seems to suiteveryone just fine. "It's a competition,"Warwick says. "The 'American Idol' isthe last 35 seconds of the last show.The show is really about the journey,not the destination."

Producers are shaking up the competition.
In thespring, when the field has beenwhittled down to the final six, a giantwrench will be thrown — albeit a starry,glittery wrench. "There's gonna be abig celebrity show," reveals Warwickexcitedly. "It's still in its formativestages, but it's gonna be huge. Absolutelyhuge. It'll probably end up beingbigger than last season's star-studdedfinale." Bigger than Prince, Mary J.Blige and Meat Loaf? We're so there.

If you're an aspiring songwriter, this season's for you.
Forget the treacly balladswritten by professional songwritersthat previously crowned Idols havebeen forced to release as first singles("Inside Your Heaven," anyone?). If allgoes according to plan, a song writtenby a regular member of the publiccould come out of the next winner'smouth. "We're thinking of opening anactual songwriting competition to thepublic [to determine] that song," Warwicksays. "And the audience will getto [choose] it." While planning is stillin the initial stages, submissions andsong voting would likely be done onlineat an as-yet-unspecified website. Ofcourse, that's the best-case scenario.Worst-case? Says Frot-Coutaz,"There's no guarantee we'll find a songthat works." In which case, it's back toa bloated ballad.

Season 6 could blow Season 5 out of the water.
Last year, TaylorHicks, Chris Daughtry and the ganghelped Idol average 30 million viewers — its biggest audience yet. Is it possible to top that in an age of dwindling network viewership, especially as theshow ages? "We ask ourselves that,"Warwick admits. "I've been workingin TV for 40 years — I know damn wellthat every program on earth has a 'sell by'date. So in the back of my mind, itis a worry. All you can do is concentrateon what's in front of you andmake the best show you can." Surprisingly,it's the tart-tongued Cowellwho's quick to offer the most promisingwords. "It starts with the auditions,doesn't it?" he says. "If the auditionswork, you've got a good chance at asuccessful [season]. And the auditionsthis year are sensational."

For the five other things you must know going into the new season of American Idol, check out the TV Guide cover story, on newsstands this week.

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