"Idol" returns, putting on a fresh accent


"American Idol" returns tonight (Wednesday), freshening a form that already works. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By MIKE HUGHES


PASADENA, CaL. -- The 13th “American Idol” season
is starting, amid new ideas and new accents.


A towering Swede is joining the British producers. And on
the judging panel, a New Orleans guy (Harry Connick Jr.) is joining an Aussie
(Keith Urban) and a Bronx native (Jennifer Lopez).


The Swede is 6-foot-4-inch Per Blankens, a sign of the
show’s urge to change. “Per has run the most successful version outside
‘American Idol,’ in Sweden,” said Trish Kinane, an Englishwoman who joins him
as executive producer. “It’s an amazing show.”


His approach will be felt early. “We like to focus more on
the kids and tell their stories,” Blankens said. “We have them sing songs they
can relate to.”


And his biggest step may or may not be tried this season: In
Sweden, he said, the final five episodes are held in the arenas of the original
audition cities.


Other changes are coming, including a two-day “boot camp”
led by Randy Jackson. That’s part of an effort to speed up the show’s
midsection. “Viewers told us that they were fed up with the middle rounds,” Kinane
said. Those rounds “went on and on and on and on … so we’ve shortened all
that.”


Still, the big change is among the judges. Jackson has
shifted to mentoring; the sometimes-feuding Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj have
been replaced by a cheerier group. “When you watch a show, you want to see
people having fun and having a laugh,” said Ryan Seacrest, who has hosted all
13 years,


Lopez, 44, starts her third year, after taking a break;
Urban, 46, starts his second. Connick, 46, starts his first – but said he’s
always been a fan.


“I remember being (in the studio audience) at the first
finale,” Connick said, “when Kelly Clarkson won …. I’ve watched it every year,
religiously.”


And noisily. “I was that guy … watching with his family,
saying, ‘Why won’t they tell them they can’t sing?’ …. I would scream at the
television and say, ‘They can’t sing!’”


That goes to his own tough-love education in New Orleans,
with “teachers like Ellis Marsalis, who would say, ‘You should quit. You don’t
have talent. You should think of another vocation.’”


Ellis Marsalis had worked with the best, including his sons
Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo. He wasn’t about to give an easy ride to Connick,
whose roots – his mother was a state Supreme Court justice, his dad was
district attorney for three decades – weren’t musical.


But Connick stuck with it. He soloed with the New Orleans
Symphony at 9, went on to win three Grammys; he’s a music expert who judges gifted
singers with no music training. “The first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Boy,
wouldn’t they benefit from a great musical education?’”


Now he’s judging a broad range of singers. “We saw some
people who were … in college studying vocal performance and theory and stuff,”
Connick said. “And some of the people we see, man, they don’t know anything
about music. And I love them all.”


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“American Idol,” Fox.


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Debuts 8-10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (Jan.
15-16).


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Then 8-10 p.m. Wednesdays and 8-9 p.m.
Thursdays.