The one-time Fox juggernaut retools as it kicks off its new season
'American Idol' is not the superstar-minting ratings behemoth it was at the peak of its powers. Now as the Fox franchise enters its 14th season, kicking off with a two-night premiere tonight and Thursday, it is retooling with some of its biggest changes to date.
For one, Randy Jackson is gone. "The Dawg" left his seat at the judge's table last season and took on a diminished role as a mentor to the contestants, but now he's left the party for good, leaving host Ryan Seacrest as the only member of the on-air team left from "Idol's" summer 2002 debut.
Also gone are the red Coca-Cola cups that have been positioned in front of the judges for years. Coke announced in December it had ended its sponsorship of the show, so the judges will need to drink from something else when they feel parched. (This is your big chance, Faygo!)
Most significantly and most tellingly of the show's diminished returns, "Idol" will air only once a week once its live shows begin in March. Where the show once dominated the TV landscape, ratings have steadily decreased in recent years, with last year's finale viewed by a series low 10.1 million viewers. For comparison, "Idol's" second-season finale was seen by 38 million viewers.
While "Idol" may be down, it's not out, and its legacy is unmatched by those that followed in its wake. It launched the careers of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia and Adam Lambert, while other shows have done more for the profiles of the judging talent than they have for their contestants. (Quick: Name a winner of "The Voice." Hey, no Googling!)
One thing that hasn't changed this year is the trio of judges. Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. will be heading up the hunt for the second-straight year, after last year proving to have the right balance of wisdom, wit and chemistry. They'll be joined by Scott Borchetta, CEO of the Big Machine Label Group, who replaces Jackson as the contestants' mentor. Borchetta knows a thing or two about shaping young talent: He discovered a fresh-faced, 14-year-old country singer named Taylor Swift.
Most importantly, there's a new crop of singers waiting in the wings to wear the "Idol" crown. And after two down years — both Season 12 winner Candice Glover and Season 13 champ Caleb Johnson failed to make an impact, commercially or otherwise — the show is eager to find a winner worthy of its title.
Among the many faces in the hunt are 19-year-old Alex Shier of Port Huron, whose Nashville audition will be featured on Thursday's episode. Shier also auditioned in 2013, when the show held a casting call at Detroit's Ford Field. He spent the next year practicing and toughening up to go in front of the judges again.
"This year I came out with a vengeance," says Shier, who sang James Morrison's "Never Ever Hurt Like You" and Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire" for his audition. He says his experience in the first audition process helped him this time around. "I learned in the past year that failure is a key component to success."
Also giving it another go this year is Taylor Walls of South Rockwood, who made it to the show's Hollywood Week round in Season 13 and is aiming to return this year. (In real time, the Hollywood rounds have already been taped, but details aren't released by Fox officials.)
"I approached it like I was fighting for my life," says Walls, 20, who auditioned for the show in Kansas City. She says she was "devastated" after being cut last year, but was eager to try out for the show again and try and earn the title of "American Idol."
"There's something with the name 'American Idol,' " says Walls, who has been watching the show since she was 8 years old. "Oh my goodness, it's 'American Idol.' "
That may not mean what it once did, but it still means plenty.
8-9 p.m. tonight
8-10 p.m. Thursday