<EM>American Idol</EM> American Idol

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 abandoned her and Dad was in jail). The first city to get the audition treatment, Minneapolis, was chock-full of the latter, according to executive producer Cécile Frot-Coutaz. "We have some great stories — some really sad and some inspirational," she promises. "You'll see a lot of heart." Seattle, on the other hand, was all about damaged eardrums. Host Ryan Seacrest recalls the first of two days spent in the Pacific Northwest, when he sat down for a lunch break with the three judges. "We just looked at each other, jaws dropped, like, 'Where have these people come from?'" he says. As chronically cranky judge Simon Cowell puts it, "I hated everyone who auditioned." Surprisingly, he did not storm out of the room, as he has in the past when frustrated by a lack of talent. But, he notes, "There were a lot of [contestants] who went nuts at me and walked out."

A whopping 103,000 hopefuls auditioned, and, Seattle aside, they weren't all William Hungs.
In fact, Season 6 may boast the biggest talent pool yet. "America always has had the greatest singers in the world," Cowell proclaims. "We've definitely found that." Everybody has his or her early favorites. Paula Abdul is gaga over a handful of guys, whom she describes as "edgier than the girls." Randy Jackson favors "someone with curly hair," and [executive producer Ken] Warwick raves about a girl who "is gonna give Aretha Franklin a run for her money." Still, they all agree that of those who made it through to Hollywood this year, there is no clear Fantasia-esque front-runner. This seems to suit everyone just fine. "It's a competition," Warwick says. "The 'American Idol' is the last 35 seconds of the last show. The show is really about the journey, not the destination."

Producers are shaking up the competition.
In the spring, when the field has been whittled down to the final six, a giant wrench will be thrown — albeit a starry, glittery wrench. "There's gonna be a big celebrity show," reveals Warwick excitedly. "It's still in its formative stages, but it's gonna be huge. Absolutely huge. It'll probably end up being bigger than last season's star-studded finale." 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 ballads written by professional songwriters that previously crowned Idols have been forced to release as first singles ("Inside Your Heaven," anyone?). If all goes according to plan, a song written by a regular member of the public could come out of the next winner's mouth. "We're thinking of opening an actual songwriting competition to the public [to determine] that song," Warwick says. "And the audience will get to [choose] it." While planning is still in the initial stages, submissions and song voting would likely be done online at an as-yet-unspecified website. Of course, that's the best-case scenario. Worst-case? Says Frot-Coutaz, "There's no guarantee we'll find a song that works." In which case, it's back to a bloated ballad.

Season 6 could blow Season 5 out of the water.
Last year, Taylor Hicks, Chris Daughtry and the gang helped Idol average 30 million viewers — its biggest audience yet. Is it possible to top that in an age of dwindling network viewership, especially as the show ages? "We ask ourselves that," Warwick admits. "I've been working in TV for 40 years — I know damn well that every program on earth has a 'sell by' date. So in the back of my mind, it is a worry. All you can do is concentrate on what's in front of you and make the best show you can." Surprisingly, it's the tart-tongued Cowell who's quick to offer the most promising words. "It starts with the auditions, doesn't it?" he says. "If the auditions work, you've got a good chance at a successful [season]. And the auditions this 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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