If the first round of "American Idol" audition episodes is any indication, it's going to be a long and ear-wrenching third season.
Or will it? Judge Randy Jackson and co-executive producer Ken Warwick insist the show's talent pool has improved drastically since its first two seasons.
"This year's final 32 contestants are brilliant," said Warwick, who also produces "Pop Idol," the U.K. blueprint for the show's American version. "Generally speaking, when you get to the top 10, the bottom five are not that great. But this year's top 10 are going to be astonishing."
"I know we say that every season, but this time it really isbetter," added Jackson, who also offered a tip about the winner. "It might be about a girl this year. The girls showed up better than the boys this time. But we'll see. It's up to America, baby."
Jackson admitted the judges performed much the same song-and-dance routine a year ago (see "Judges Size Up New Round Of 'American Idol' Hopefuls" ). Warwick, though, has a theory to support his claim this time around.
"The first two years, everyone thought we were only looking for the quintessential pop star: a good-looking, sexy, 18-year-old girl with the midriff and one tattoo," he laborated. "I think we dispelled that notion last season. So this year no kids stayed away because they were worried about the way they look. They all turned up."
So many good singers auditioned, in fact, that some who made it to the final 32 a year ago were less fortunate this year, Warwick said. Those contestants will be featured in a special segment of the February 3 episode.
Impressed by the quality of this season's participants, Warwick has raised the quality of other parts of the show, already hitting ratings grand slams.
"There will be celebrity judges again, and if it goes the way we want, they'll be much bigger and better than anyone we've had," he said. "The show's profile has obviously grown since last year, and the names we're talking to are huge and great."
The producer, who preferred not to name names, said the show would also have special guests who will work with the singers but not necessarily judge them.
The show's format will remain more or less the same, although one of its phases will get a substantial tweak.
"We needed to change the middle 'workshop' shows, where the 32 finalists sing with only piano accompaniment and no audience," Warwick said, referring to the live shows beginning February 9. Both in the U.S. and internationally, he said, "We found it was a little cold. The audience watched the first couple of weeks, trailed away and then returned in droves when the finals started. To combat that, we're making a kind of club situation. It will still be in a studio, but there'll be a small in-the-round audience and four musicians, not just a piano."
Warwick insisted on not changing that phase too much, though. "It's the point where the public latches on to whoever they're going to support," he said.
But if the overall talent is as good as Jackson and Warwick promise, why have the audition shows been packed with one horrible singer (and scatter and yodeler and dancer and ...) after another?
"We need to make an entertainingly varied TV show," Warwick said. "It's no secret that we take the very best and the very worst. It would be fair to say a considerable amount of our viewership for these first five or six shows wants to see the bad kids. If we gave you six shows of good kids, followed by eight shows of good kids, followed by 12 shows of good kids, you'd be fed up. This is where the series' humor is. If someone is funny-bad, they have a chance to see the judges."
"American Idol" producers try to avoid allowing singers who are purposely bad to audition for Jackson, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul just for the sake of getting on TV. But they're sometimes fooled. One contestant last week was hired to mock the process by a Miami radio station's morning show.
"Simon asked three times if she was serious, and she even started crying," Warwick said. "She was a good actress."
"American Idol" offers additional support to horrible singers truly heartbroken by one of Cowell's blunt assessments.
"We have psychiatrists," Warwick said.