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PASADENA, Calif. -- "They're fun. They get along. It's going to be great."
And with that observation Ryan Seacrest, Monday's interview session with American Idol's host, judges and producers could easily have ended as soon as it began, because the question on everyone's mind had been answered: What's the atmosphere at the judging table going to be like this season now that last year's toxic tandem -- Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj -- has exited the show?
With Idol set to return for its 13th season with a two-part premiere that airs tonight and Thursday at 7 p.m. on Fox, the network was eager to show the series' latest combination of judges -- Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. -- are inclined toward fun rather than feuding as they begin the search for the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood.
The trio, along with host Seacrest and producers Trish Kinane and Per Blankens, served up a lively and light-spirited interview session during Fox's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, demonstrating -- both in person and in a series of preview clips from already-completed audition stops around the U.S. -- that they actually seem to enjoy each other's company.
Lopez, who returns to the series after a year's absence, said there's a definite sense of shared mission in this year's judging panel.
"With Steven and Randy it was one thing, and with Harry and Keith, it's another," she said." But to be honest, there is a similarity, and the similarity is that I loved coming to work every day, which is why I'm back. I really enjoy this show as a fan, and I fell even more in love with it being involved with the production of the show. And this season... I am lucky enough to sit between two people who I respect and have a good time with, and we all love music. We love the journey, and we're all fans of American Idol, and I think that's what's going to make it sparkly and fresh and new again."
Lopez added that when she left Idol in 2012 after a two-year stint, she did so with mixed feelings. And when the show's producers asked her to rejoin the judging panel, she was willing to adjust her hectic schedule to make it happen.
"I never planned to do the show for more than a year, and I did it for two years because I just loved it so much," she said. "When they asked me back this year... somehow we were able to juggle and work it out with my schedule, and I'm glad I did because I'm having a great time."
The fact the judges are enjoying what can sometimes be an arduous talent-searching exercise does not, however, mean they're taking the task of picking potential Idols seriously. There's a decided tough-love approach in this season's open-audition segments.
"I grew up with teachers watching you and critiquing you a lot tougher than anything you'll see on this show," Connick said of his own early musical education in New Orleans. "My teachers, like Ellis Marsalis, would say, 'You should quit. You don't have talent for this. You should think of another vocation. You're not good enough.' Those were mean things to say... (but) it's OK to say that. Here's the deal: You sign up to be judged by us, and we judge you. I don't care about how you look or what happened in your personal life; that's not why you're here right now. Ultimately, it's interesting to know, but I'm responding to a performance. And I don't believe you have to couch your critique in some compliment.
"I don't think you need to be mean. Sometimes it's a little bit blunt and direct, but it's never personal. If I could wrap all these kids up and take them home, I would. I love them. I really do. But we've got to get on with the show, man. If somebody can't sing, they need to go home."
In the hope of re-energizing Idol, which has seen its ratings decline steadily over the past few seasons, the series' producers have made several changes to the format this year. Jackson is gone from the judges' table but has not exited altogether; he will serve a mentoring role in Season 13, conducting two-day workshops with contestants in advance of live-performance shows.
Producers have shifted the series' focus, putting more emphasis on those live performances; they've also added an element called "The Chamber" to the early auditions -- a small room in which contestants can spend a few quiet moments before stepping out in front of the judges.
"It's just that moment between Ryan saying, 'OK, in a couple of minutes you're going to be in front of the judges. Give it your all,' and before they see the judges," said Kinane. "There's this moment in The Chamber where they're on their own to collect themselves. There's a camera in there. They know there's a camera in there, but people do very different things. Some people pray. Some people sing. Some people look under their arms to see if they're perspiring. It's just a very sort of intimate moment, but it tells you quite a lot about those kids."
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