Throughout the latest season of "American Idol," the judges have often called the contestants the best the show has seen. Ask a singer from a previous seasons, however, and they're likely to say that things are just easier now.
"I'm actually jealous of this season," second-season winner Ruben Studdard said last week. "They get to perform every night with a live band. Now how unfair is that? You've got horn sections and you've got violins going."
"It's always better to perform with a live band, 'cause you get that feel, that energy," added 2004 winner Fantasia.
In past seasons, the contestants performed with a backing track some weeks and a live band on others. And that band was much smaller than this year's, which was brought in for the first time during the semifinals.
Regardless, "American Idol" co-executive producer Ken Warwick disagrees that the band brings an advantage.
"There's nothing more intimidating than walking out there with a 25-piece live band behind you," Warwick said. "And in the past you could take that backing track away and rehearse to it and go over it and over it."
Along with bringing in a bigger band, the producers have also gotten more flexible on the staging of the performances.
"Now they're allowed to run in the audience and run on the judges table and all that stuff," second-season finalist Kimberly Caldwell pointed out. "[Before] they were like, 'You stay on the stage and that's [it].' "
Inaugural winner Kelly Clarkson believes her season faced the most disadvantages of all since it was the show's first year in America and the producers were still working out the kinks.
"We were definitely the guinea pigs," Clarkson said. "It's a little easier [now] 'cause the staff knows the scheduling and they know what not to do to, [when] people will lose their voice. They know you can't be up at 4 a.m. and go to sleep at 11 a.m. and then do it all again."
Warwick agrees to some extent. "We are more certain of what we're doing on the weekly production schedule now," he said, "and we try to keep the kids as protected as we can, but it's still very, very tough. When we get to that final 12, the world wants to get at these kids, but we try to structure it so that it's the least debilitating on them as possible. ... There are many things that we turn down on their behalf every week because we know them, they just can't cope with it. If their voices go, then we don't have a program. But I don't honestly think it is that much less stressful than it was in series one."
In past seasons, the "Idol" finalists would attend an awards show or two while in Los Angeles, as well as spend time with various celebrity singers. This season, their time has been focused on rehearsing, with the exception of the traditional filming of a commercial each week.
The behind-the-scenes process is basically the same now as it was the first season, down to the clothing allowance given to the contestants each week. The accommodations in the rehearsal rooms, on the other hand, have improved.
"They got couches and big screens, excuse me!" Fantasia jokingly complained.
"We used to rehearse in this room with no color on the wall and it's like yellow and red now," Caldwell added. "And there was no carpet. The floor was cement. And we literally had the folding plastic chairs."
"Now they've got Xboxes in the room," Studdard said. "They have a free drink machine."
"No! Oh my gosh! We had room-temperature water," Caldwell responded.
Nigel Lythgoe, Warwick's fellow co-executive producer, laughed about the conditions and said, if anything, contestants on the fourth season have it the hardest.
"People have got more to live up to now," he said. "I would suggest that some of the kids last season who were not really good enough to be there found it tougher because they took some real criticism last year, which they didn't in the first season. But now, all of the media is aware of 'American Idol,' and the kids take some devastating stuff. I mean, I remember John Stevens last season being threatened with being assassinated for God's sake."
Lythgoe does give Clarkson some credit. "What was probably tougher [in the] first season is no one knew what they were getting into," he said. "No one anticipated that they would still be taking knocks from Simon once they got into the top 12. They didn't realize that they would be working seven days a week."
And, let's not forget, with room-temperature water.