Judges Keith Urban, left, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. are part of the changes producers made for the 13th season of 'American Idol.' (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)
Remember last season of “American Idol?” Fox would prefer you didn’t.
The veteran singing competition kicks off its 13th season Wednesday night with an emphasis on moving forward. Keith Urban is the only judge who survived last season’s debacle, as Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson all have shuffled off. Urban is joined by a returning Jennifer Lopez and new judge Harry Connick Jr., whose stint as a mentor last year was one of the season’s few highlights.
There are also significant behind-the-scenes changes, with a new team of executive producers in place. The result, producers say, is a show that dismisses the petty sniping and bad vibes that derailed last year’s show in favor of a more respectful, peaceful atmosphere.
“We stressed that we wanted a panel (of people who) enjoyed each others’ company and could actually sit down together or go out to lunch,” executive producer Per Blankens told the Hollywood Reporter this week. “If we don’t have a good time behind the camera, then we can’t expect the viewers to have a good time when they see the show.”
That was the problem last year, when the tension between Carey and Minaj — and eventually, their refusal to acknowledge one another’s existence, despite sitting one chair away from one another — made for a monumentally uncomfortable viewing experience. The show ended up suffering, with an average of 13.2 million viewers, down from 17.2 million the year prior.
In addition, last year’s heavily touted girl power season, including the show’s first all-female Top 5, wound up petering out. The show’s winner, Candice Glover — the first female “Idol” since Jordin Sparks in 2007 — has yet to release her debut album, where “Idol” winners traditionally release their albums in the busy holiday sales frame. (Glover’s album is scheduled to be released next month.)
In looking forward, producers have freshened the show’s musical selections, and will make strides to have contestants sing more current songs by presenting less restrictive themes. After leaving to helm “The Tonight Show’s” band, musical director Rickey Minor is returning to “Idol” and bringing along Season 8 finalist Allison Iraheta as a backup singer. And producers are reportedly looking to focus on finding great singers, not on sob stories, putting an emphasis back on voices.
The two-hour premiere will feature contestants from the show’s talent calls in Boston and Austin, with Thursday’s focusing on Austin and San Francisco. The Detroit audition episode, covering the show’s visits to Ford Field in July and the Westin Book Cadillac in October, will air Jan. 22.
Of course, some things never change on “Idol,” and despite leaving the judge’s table, Jackson will return as a mentor to the contestants. His role change is symbolic of a show looking to freshen its image, to see if this old dawg is still capable of learning some new tricks.
8-10 tonight and Thursday