'American Idol' Producer Promises Fewer Celebrity Mentors, Judges -- And No Britney Spears

Nigel Lythgoe also says Jordin Sparks' and Blake Lewis' poor chart debuts have nothing to do with the show.

Will the next season of "American Idol" boast the best crop of singers yet to appear on the singing competition? Yes — or so claims Nigel Lythgoe. While admitting that he gets paid to say it, the executive producer insisted the upcoming seventh edition will produce the strongest top 12 in the show's history.

"This year I think ... there will be standout individuals right from the beginning," he said during a Thursday (December 13) conference call with journalists to discuss the upcoming season, which kicks off January 15 with a two-hour special. "It's not just a question of seeing somebody grow like Jordin last year, [who] grew [over the course of] the series. ... This year I think you will go, 'Wow, he's great, she's good and that kid's great too!' There will be standouts very, very quickly."

As promised, there will also be a few tweaks to the "Idol" formula, including allowing some instruments during the audition phase, a first for the show. Lythgoe said it was not yet decided if the top 12 contestants will be allowed to play live onstage because of fears that it might give some finalists an advantage over ones who cannot play, but he hinted that playing and singing worked out very well for some wannabes during the Hollywood week and caused others to crash and burn during auditions.

"Three [contestants] that I'm positive will be in our top 12 [played instruments and] were terrific, and a couple of others really just crashed and burned. It's very difficult to sing in tune and play drums at the same time. It's a complete nightmare." He also mentioned that this year's competition has three or four very promising singers who are 16 and 17 years old.

Another change will be that this year's show will feature fewer celebrity mentors and judges, and focus more intently on the contestants' stories. Lythgoe admitted "Idol" got away from that thread a bit last year — to the show's detriment.

"I think we got carried away with the mentors last season for sure," he said of the pileup of guest stars that included past winners Carrie Underwood and Fantasia, as well as Gwen Stefani, Jennifer Lopez, Fergie, Pink and Enrique Iglesias. "We will spend more time talking to the kids about their lives [and] what they want from this competition."

And while he said the show has already inked two celebrity guests he's "absolutely thrilled" about (but would not name), when asked if he'd consider having Britney Spears as a guest judge on "Idol," Lythgoe said not anymore.

"I would have had Britney Spears on last year, when I thought she was trying to get it all back together, but Britney at this moment in time is not well enough," he said, adding that he thinks she's exceptionally talented but needs some "looking after" at the moment.

Though ratings for the show remained strong last year — and it continued to be, far and away, the most watched show in primetime — Lythgoe said that kind of mass popularity doesn't always translate at the record store. The weak chart debuts from last year's winner, Jordin Sparks, and runner-up, Blake Lewis, are not necessarily a sign that the show is on the wane, Lythgoe said.

"I've never believed that the television audience is the same as the record-buying audience," he said. "If that were true, my God, they'd be selling 60 million albums as opposed to 2 million albums. I don't know how that translates ... it doesn't always translate." Citing the middling success of such past winners as Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino, Lythgoe said the show is a springboard, but that it doesn't guarantee Carrie Underwood-style success for every winner or finalist.

In a year when it will likely face little or no competition from scripted dramas due to the ongoing writers strike, Lythgoe said, despite the temptation, "Idol" has no plans to stretch its wings to more than two nights. He did, however, say it will pick up a third evening on April 9, when the "Idol Gives Back" charity special comes back for a second year.

Lythgoe also discussed "The Next Great American Band," the ratings-debacle "Idol" spinoff he also executive produces. He said he believes the show is hurting due to a combination of people having a harder time connecting with a band versus an individual, as well as a terrible time slot.

"If you've really got any common sense, instead of watching [bands] on television on Friday night, you're actually out enjoying yourself watching bands," he said.

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