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When "American Idol" debuted nearly a dozen years ago, two of the three judges had something in common with the contestants: They were unknowns, at least to the mass TV audience.
Still, Simon Cowell's sarcasm and Randy Jackson's upbeat patter quickly melded with the loopy and sappy pronouncements of Paula Abdul, until then known far better for dancing than talking, into a television phenomena. The panelists' banter became a kind of music in itself – albeit more comic cacophony at times than symphony.
Viewers weren't watching a new kind of TV show as much as a pop culture chemistry experiment conducted in real time on Fox. It worked – spectacularly – until bickering and personnel changes began to eclipse the real stars: the young singers.
"Idol," coming off record-low ratings for its May season finale, returns for its 13th outing Wednesday with a reconstituted panel and a steep challenge: to create a new version of the old winning formula amid scrutiny and high expectations.
The overhauled lineup, with Ryan Seacrest remaining as host, appears to have a good shot at gelling.
Returning after a one-season absence is Jennifer Lopez, who proved a superstar could bring a down-to-earth approach to “Idol,” emerging as encouraging and honest, but never cruel. Keith Urban, in his first season last year, stood out as a voice of calm amid the grating Mariah Carey-Nicki Minaj diva-off. Newcomer Harry Connick, Jr. arrives as an affable performer who knows what it's like to hit it big when young.
“Idol” producers are promising changes to the program, including allowing contestant to play instruments at auditions. But no alterations can compare to how the talent show landscape “Idol” helped create has morphed over the last decade-plus.
“The Voice,” which returns Feb. 24, has succeeded by expanding on the “Idol” formula, while largely avoiding the senior program’s missteps. The sibling-like rivalry among “The Voice” coaches, while entertaining, hasn’t spilled over into knocking – or overshadowing – the contestants.
“Idol” appears to be learning from NBC's "Voice.” A promo video for the new season features the judges talking about “Idol” as the “American Dream” and citing its ample success stories, while avoiding scenes of the freak show that the early auditions can denigrate into.
There’s no predicting, as with all things involving human chemistry, whether the new panel lineup will succeed. While the contestants tryout for the judges, Lopez, Urban and Connick will be auditioning for the viewers as “Idol” vies to recapture the TV talent show crown it once captured for a song.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.