If there's one thing "American Idol" fans should expect from the show's sixth season, it's familiar faces, both in the early audition episodes and later in the finals.
When the series premieres Tuesday (January 16), the usual hodgepodge of good and bad singers and the judging drama that goes along with them should take up a fair share of the airtime. But there'll also be something the show hasn't seen a lot of in the past: repeat contestants and the even more intense judging drama that goes along with them.
"There's kids who've tried three times already, and they've worked hard and lost weight and hired a music coach and still don't make it," said Cecile Frot-Coutaz, chief executive officer of FremantleMedia North America Inc., which produces "Idol." "There's a few you'll remember. There's a couple who come back and do make it, which is nice. Then you have the others who don't make it and don't want to take no for an answer, either. They're begging and pleading and saying, 'You don't know how much this means to me.' It's a lot of great, sad, heart-wrenching stories — very genuine actually."
Once the wannabe "Idols" are narrowed down to the coveted final 12 (on March 8), the familiar faces will arrive in the form of celebrity guests, who will be more recognizable than in previous seasons. Think more Elton Johns and Rod Stewarts, less Paul Ankas and Verdine Whites.
"We have some really exciting names coming up and that's really where we're focusing our efforts, getting greater and bigger stars to come on the show and work with the kids," Frot-Coutaz said.
No one's naming names yet, but the long-gestating Paul McCartney rumors are more rampant than ever — perhaps that's the big mid-season stunt Frot-Coutaz has teased? — and Randy Jackson has been tempted to tap into his much-hyped Rolodex, beginning with Mariah Carey.
"We've tossed it around a bit," said Jackson, who oversaw Carey's touring band last year (see "Mariah's Summer Adventure: No 'Rolling Crib,' But Makeovers For The 'Classics' "). "I think she'd be great because I think still, for me, she and Whitney [Houston] and Celine [Dion] are those three big, great divas -- some of the better singers of our time. I mentioned it to her. ... She's definitely open to it, so we'll see what happens."
Frot-Coutaz also mentioned she'd like to book a few former finalists. "You have to fit with the themes, but we like to have people back from the season before," she said. "Chris, Katharine, Taylor. It's a great way to tie it in and show the [current] contestants what these people are like a year later."
Chris Daughtry's "Home" is also in contention to replace Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" as the show's unofficial elimination song, although producers are also looking at a number from Will Young, the original "Pop Idol" winner in England. "We're trying to keep it in the family," Frot-Coutaz said.
As for what else to expect in season six, as always, the contestants seem to be influenced by the previous season, with even a few gray-haired Southern gentlemen turning up in hopes to repeat Taylor Hicks' success.
"There was more rock guys because of Chris Daughtry and there were a couple of more Taylor Hicks kind of guys that were kind of in the middle somewhere," Jackson said. "I think fortunately for us every year, the show gets more validation because people see that there's great people that have won and gone on to great careers. So we get a lot more talented people every year."
Although the show traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, this season for tryouts (home of Hicks, Ruben Studdard, Bo Bice and Diana DeGarmo), Jackson predicted the winner will come from somewhere else. He wasn't, however, about to predict a male or female victor, as he's done in the past.
"Simon and I have been saying it's more like season one — I think it's going to be somebody that really grows during the competition," Jackson said. "There are a bunch of standouts, but what we've seen over the years is that you see these people audition in their audition city and they're great. Then they come to Hollywood week and they're not so great and the tension just gets worse and worse and worse as the season goes on. So it's who can really stand in there and take it and show up every week and be amazing."
On the other side of the judging table, Frot-Coutaz said Simon Cowell is as grumpy as ever and Paula Abdul is becoming more critical (especially during the Seattle tryouts, which have been dubbed "the disaster in Seattle"). "Every year she goes a little more towards the dark side," Frot-Coutaz said of the usually affable Abdul.
As for Jackson, well, expect more signature Randy. "I'm going to wear more yellow and lime green in honor of Gnarls Barkley," Jackson said. And he's serious, dawg.