And here we go again -- for the 12th time, as a matter of fact. "American Idol" returns Wednesday (at 8 on Fox/5) draped in newness -- new judges, new energy and new(ish) format. Let's get to all this newness, with evaluations:
NEW JUDGES: You know them well -- Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj (plus old, reliable Randy Jackson) -- and you also know about the preshow publicity (feuding sisters!). But is this new panel...
GOOD OR BAD? Forget the business about the "feud" -- that's overblown claptrap designed to boost preshow buzz. Carey and Minaj will get along, though Urban, colorfully described by show topper Nigel Lythgoe as "the scratching post" between the divas, may be the most shrewd addition. The Down Under country star could bring a crucial calming balance (let's call it "sanity" for the moment). But if this high-wattage panel pulls the focus off the contestants, this could be another step toward obsolescence.
NEW CONTESTANT SEARCH: "Idol" sent producers to pinpricks on the map to seek out contestants too shy (or too distant) to venture to big-city stadiums for those grueling auditions. "I Nominate" also was deployed, whereby friends sent in the name of someone too shy to audition. Jackson turned up to surprise them.
GOOD OR BAD? Anything to enliven the sclerotic audition process is good. We'll have to wait to see if a winner emerges from this process, however.
NEW TOP 10: That's right -- 10, not 12 or 13. In fact, "Idol" will have a top 10 finalist crop for the first time since season one. It'll break down this way: At the end of Hollywood week (Feb. 14), 20 men and 20 women will be selected for the semis in Las Vegas (Feb. 20- 28). The top 10 male and top 10 female semifinalists are announced in early March, and the top 10 on March 7.
GOOD OR BAD? On paper, good. Key here are the Hollywood rounds that will be strictly divided along gender lines -- one week male, one week female -- which, as Lythgoe said in a recent call to writers, "gave us an awful lot more focus on our talent this year that allowed us to see the woods the trees.... " A top 10 finalist pool comprising five women and five men also theoretically levels the playing field (last season had seven men finalists, and six women), giving underdog women contestants a greater chance of success. But with one elimination a week, "Idol" would conclude in early May. So what will the show do to stretch itself out to late May?
NEW VOTING DETAILS: There's a possibility "Idol" will reveal how individual finalists fared regionally or even -- like "The X Factor" -- how they stacked up against one another.
GOOD OR BAD? Probably bad. Wait (you say)! More transparency in the murky "Idol" voting process can't be a bad thing, right? But regional reveals will merely establish the obvious -- that the South does most of the voting. Why not just give a hard number count for each contestant each week? That way, viewers can see if their favorite is lagging behind and will then have more impetus to vote (and vote often) the following week.
NEW 'IDOL': Finally, it does appear as though we have a brand-new "Idol," designed to erase an impression among some that it's a geezer, especially with the rise of "The Voice."
GOOD OR BAD A cautious "good." Impressions count, and the impression is that there is plenty of life left here -- and, of course, there is. Stars can still be found. Last season's winner, Phillip Phillips, has been a major success. These changes, on balance, seem like they may help the process rather than turn it into a travesty.