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'American Idol' preview: New and improved

Jennifer Lopez at the "Viva Movil by Jennifer

Jennifer Lopez at the "Viva Movil by Jennifer Lopez" flagship store grand opening in Brooklyn. Lopez, returns to "American Idol" Jan. 15. (July 26, 2013) (Credit: AP)

"American Idol" returns Wednesday night as a chastened, eager-to-please, and somewhat diminished superstar who just ... wants you to love it again.

But will you love it again? That's what we get into in tomorrow's paper -- a look at "Idol's" 13 season opener. A real rarity has occurred: Fox actually distributed review copies of the season opener. Again, that's quite the sea-change, reflective of a new open door policy.

Here's what we found out ... in Q-and-A format for easier reader consumption.

PHOTOS: Finals Semifinals | Auditions | "Idol" judges past and present | Winners and finalists | Where are they now?

The most important season -- the 13th -- in "American Idol" history begins tonight.

Which is what we say every year, but this time we really mean it: Ratings are down (way down, to an average 13 million viewers last season) . . . buzz is MIA . . . judges have been evicted...producers too...

In an unprecedented move, Fox sent out Wednesday night's premiere for review. Will "13" be "Idol's" lucky number?

To the questions! And my quick assessment on how the changes work so far.

What's new judge Harry Connick Jr. like? I begin with Harry because the judge panel is the most obvious departure. Gone is Randy Jackson -- get used to it -- and back is Jennifer Lopez (and holdover, Keith Urban). Then, there's the new guy. As judge, Connick is both the heavy and the cut-up; harder to please, he issues more "no's" than the other two combined ("Hatchet Harry," JLo ruefully calls him at one point) but his criticisms also tend to be accurate. He's a practical joker -- promising to pick up and cradle one contestant during the Austin rounds, for example, and does. A father, he even occasionally offers paternal advice -- objecting, for example, to line in a Grace Potter song, saying it was not age appropriate for the contestant (who's 15).

And by the way, Randy will be back on the show a bit later, in a new element called "Boot Camp," where he preps post-Hollywood Round contestants. 

Bottom line: Connick Jr.'s a good addition, without question. The judges even seem to like each other, which effectively zeros out last season's major distraction -- the judge's did not. Credit him for some of this improvement.

What about the contestants? In a way, this change is most profound. Wednesday night, "Idol" issues 45 Hollywood round tickets during the Austin and Boston auditions, and you -- the viewer -- will see the vast majority of the contestants who receive them. In addition, they're allowed instruments (guitar, for the most part) in their auditions which smooths both the nerves and (even) occasionally improves pitch and tone.

Bottom line: Massive improvement. Emphasis is now more squarely on the contestants, and you will (in fact) hear a number of decent voices tonight.

What about the "bad" singers -- that "Idol" early season staple in which the horrible were trotted before the judges to be dismembered, for the amusement of the masses? Gone! There's only one or two tonight, and even they are borderline calls. Virtually every contestant seen deserves to be seen.

Bottom line: This is by far the most welcome enhancement of the new season. In fact, I've been preaching this for years: The jokey early rounds are not only needlessly cruel (seriously -- some of these "contestants" in years past have had mental problems and "Idol" knew it) but also detract from the good contestants. Watch [Wednesday] and you'll realize that all those hundreds of bad auditions over the last decade took away airtime that could have gone to the good. What a waste.

Anything else? A couple of little elements -- or more like gimmicks. There's something called "The Chamber" -- a sort of decompression room contestants wait in until summoned to sing.

Bottom line: Adds next to nothing.

My final assessment? Based on admittedly one episode, “Idol” is a much improved show. But the world has changed. The way people consume music has especially changed, and by "people," I do mean the 15-to-20 year olds who have abandoned "Idol" and whom Fox so desperately wants to invite back. Wednesday night's adjustments make "Idol" a more palatable viewing experience, but who knows whether young viewers will accept the invitation. At least these changes won't turn them away.

Tags: American Idol , Jennifer Lopez , Harry Connick Jr. , Keith Urban

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