Simon Cowell’s philosophy about television production is not to tinker with something that’s working.
And “American Idol” works big time. The competition series is an annual ratings juggernaut for the Fox Network. Thousands of hopefuls turn out for the auditions. Millions of viewers telephone in their votes.
But even with all of the success, Cowell is bending his philosophy and making a few changes for Season Eight, which launches at 8 p.m. EST Tuesday. The most noticeable change is the addition of a fourth judge to the mix. Grammy-nominated songwriter Kara DioGuardi will sit alongside Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Cowell.
There was an attempt to add a fourth judge in Season Two, Angie Martinez. But she left the show after a few days because she didn’t enjoy criticizing the contestants.
Cowell’s not certain how well DioGuardi will fit in the mix.
“I have been very, very happy with this panel for years because we did have a unique chemistry. I genuinely don’t know until I watch the show whether this is a good thing or a bad thing,” Cowell says during a telephone interview to discuss the new season. “I’m in two minds about this because part of me goes a bit, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ and the other part of me goes, ‘Well, it has worked in the U.K.’ So we’ll have to wait and see.”
There will be a few other changes this season. The number of weeks featuring tryouts will be reduced from four to three weeks. And 36 contestants will make the trip to Hollywood instead of the 24 in the past.
“I wasn’t crazy about the process we went through the last couple of years where we were given a small group of contestants who you actually got bored with once you hit about show five of the live shows. This way this is a bit more jeopardy and hopefully a bit more fun in the middle stages,” Cowell says.
The idea is to give the judges a better mix of contestants from which to make their selections. Cowell doesn’t want to end up with 12 finalists that come across as being similar.
Cowell’s way of dealing with the contestants has not changed since the first season. “American Idol” has been on the air long enough that contestants know Cowell will pounce on them for a bad performance.
But the new season starts with a dark cloud over it. Paula Goodspeed, a fan of judge Paula Abdul, killed herself in November. Goodspeed had gone through the “American Idol” audition in the fifth season.
Cowell explains that he has thought long and hard about whether the judging process, including his biting remarks, should be changed.
“I think the answer to the question is that we will continue in the way that we’ve always done. We’ve tried to have a sense of humor over the whole process. The show is not an inherently mean show. It is an American dream show. The whole purpose of the show is to find somebody - it could be a cocktail waitress like Kelly Clarkson - who through the process becomes a star,” Cowell says. “I’ve always thought it was important to show people at home that when bad singers come in and they’re not very good, that it’s time to give up that type of dream and take a normal job.
“I think it’s been helpful showing people the process. If you’re not very good, don’t waste your time - years - trying to do something that you’re not very good at doing.”
The fan’s death is just the latest bit of controversy to swirl around the show. Abdul’s erratic behavior has been called into question. There have been times when the voting has been questioned. Contestants have gotten through the application process only to be revealed as having criminal records.
One mantra in Hollywood is “any publicity is good publicity.” But Cowell doesn’t feel that way about the attention generated by the fan’s death.
“I have to separate this controversy compared to different controversies because you’re talking about a human tragedy. It hits us like an express train. So I don’t like, obviously, that kind of controversy connected to the show because it upset me a lot,” Cowell says. “I also have to respect the fact that with the media, they have been incredible supporters of us and the show from day one. They have every right to question us. All we can do is respond with the truth in return.”
Cowell’s not convinced it has just been his venomous ways that have drawn viewers. He thinks that the show has become so popular that it could go on even if he weren’t there to offer the slings and arrows of outrageous comments.
“This show is successful all over the world and I’m only on ‘American Idol.’ I’ll make a decision next year as to what I do as an onscreen judge because there is a big, big schedule now and I do two other shows. So it’s been hard. I think that this show could continue for another 10, 20 years, to be honest with you,” Cowell says.