Fans got a larger peek at the shape of the new American Idol Tuesday, as the show's new judging panel faced TV critics in Los Angeles and Fox released a schedule for the show that tweaked the competition's format yet again.
In the new plans, producers extended the midlevel "Hollywood Week" auditions, allowing 60 contestants to sing a Beatles song on the stage of the Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas production, Love. There, the group will be narrowed to 40 people; an unplugged performance later whittles down the group to 20 semifinalists, and public votes will pick 10 finalists for the competition — evenly divided between males and females — on March 3.
The news scuttled rumors that Idol might dispense with gender neutrality in its finalists or move straight from the Hollywood Week to a small number of finalists. Producers also stressed that with new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez joining Randy Jackson, Idol is more like a new show, with no one rushing to fill in the nasty comments once provided by departed star Simon Cowell.
"We're very honest and in the moment (with critiques)," said Lopez, according to the Associated Press. "There's nothing like having that kind of discussion with another artist to help you grow."
Fans know this is a make-or-break season for Idol. Beyond the judges, the show will air on new nights — Wednesdays and Thursdays — with a new band (longtime bandleader Ricky Minor now leads Jay Leno's Tonight Show band), a new talent mentor in Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine, and new rules, including a dip in the minimum age of contestants allowing 15-year-olds to compete.
The new schedule includes the season premiere Jan. 19 and 20; Hollywood Week auditions Feb. 16 and 17; a Las Vegas round Feb. 23; top 20 announced Feb. 24; and 10 finalists announced March 3.
Are these changes enough to make a difference? We'll see, starting next week.