Clues To The New American Idol Season

The Christmas season means, among many other things, that the lumbering beast known as American Idol is slowly coming out of hibernation. The release of the debut album by the most recent Idol typically brings one cycle to an end, meaning fans can begin turning their attention to the new batch of hopefuls, several dozen of whom are waiting expectantly for the big call as you read this.

Those watching Fox over the Thanksgiving weekend may have caught the first ad for the upcoming season. These preseason ads occasionally provide some clues about the performers who the producers believe have promise -- Kellie Pickler was seen in ads during the run-up to season five, and Brooke White had some exposure in last year's preseason ads. In the past, they have also showcased those who have William Hung potential, though it's still unclear if Idol really is going to de-emphasize lousy auditions this time around in the wake of both viewer fatigue and the suicide last month of a onetime unsuccessful wannabe.

The ad also gave us a possible hint of the new dynamic at the judging table. As an attractive woman in a bikini struggled with her song choice, she received some pointed criticism from new judge Kara DioGuardi. The ad went on to show her being put through to the next round anyway, presumably due to the efforts of Simon Cowell.

It's not that surprising that Fox is choosing to both highlight DioGuardi (though she is never identified in the ad) and remind viewers that they're supposed to hate Simon. But longtime watchers of the show who aren't so easily manipulated could draw a few conclusions. First, the question of where DioGuardi will be stationed on the panel has apparently been answered: She was shown as the second judge from the left, sitting between Randy Jackson, who traditionally gets the first word, and Paula Abdul.

Both Randy and Paula spent most of last season completely checked out (I'm not sure Paula ever really checked in), offering almost nothing in the way of criticism, constructive or otherwise. DioGuardi's actual opinions may or may not be useful, but one almost certain bonus from her presence is that the veterans should feel the pressure to start doing their jobs again. Putting DioGuardi directly before Abdul in the judging order is the best option, because Paula should be worried about unflattering comparisons. And in fact, she can be heard on the ad agreeing with the newcomer that the bikini singer wasn't very good. Sisterhood!

Further ads will pop up between now and the January 13 debut, no doubt including some performers who might be deemed contenders. For now, all we have are a few spoilers, which last season at least were almost perfect in detailing the survivors of the Hollywood round and the eventual top 24. Hollywood came and went prior to Thanksgiving, and as the month proceeds the names of those who made it to the last cut (44 contestants last season, although there have been more in the past) should start to dribble out.

Someone who at least made it to Hollywood and possibly beyond is Joanna Pacitti, who has an unusual background for an Idol contestant in that she was a key figure in a major public controversy back in 1996. As detailed here, Pacitti was cast in the title role in a Broadway revival of Annie, only to be deposed at the last minute in favor of her understudy. She has kept busy in the intervening years, acting and even releasing a major label album, so her apparent inclusion in season eight won't do much to calm those fans who believe Idol should confine itself only to the truly undiscovered. Pacitti is substantially better known than even last season's Carly Smithson was.

Expect further spoilers to leak out in the coming weeks, as friends begin to talk and MySpace pages begin to get taken offline.