FOX's "American Idol" was the most watched program of the 2007-08 season. It wasn't even close. No network program came within 5.7 million viewers of the show's Wednesday episodes or 6.5 million of its Tuesday shows. But it isn't surprising that when series executive producer Ken Warwick gets on the phone with reporters, he still has to face questions about an alleged slump.
"I think the whole of the television audience last year, right across the board went down," Warwick accurately explains. "Every major show took a hit, and I believe the average was about 12 percent. I think we were seven percent down. So the truth of the matter is, we didn’t do that badly, and particularly, seeing as we are in our eighth season, I was really quite heartened, and then in the finale, we – you know we were back up again and you know we got 97 million votes in the finale. So I’m not overly concerned. I think we will drop because everything has this season."
Veteran "Idol" observers know that disingenuously predicting a ratings drop is a well-worn page in the show's playbook. On the eve of the show's fourth season premiere, for example, FOX's Entertainment President Gail Berman addressed a Television Critics Association crowd and said that a decline could be expected, adding "I think that's natural for a fourth-year show." The premiere subsequently broke series records.
But the eighth season of "Idol" isn't starting without some tinkering. The series has reinstated the Top 36 and wild card structure from the second and third seasons, doing away with the Top 12 Girls and Top 12 Guys format from recent years. In addition, singer-songwriter Kara DioGuardi has been added as a fourth judge, joining stalwarts Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul.
"There were no panic changes, I have to say," Warwick insists. "It wasn’t 'Oh my god, we've dropped seven percent, what are we going to do to change the whole show.' This wouldn’t have been on the TV for eight years if it wasn’t doing it right. And in truth, any you know any production team worth its salt, actually optimizes what the show can do after three season. Because if they haven’t got it right by then, they never will. So we are tweaking around, trying to make it a bit more interesting. Some things will work, some things won't."
Of the return to the Top 36 and wild card, Warwick explains, "[O]bviously wherever we can, we want to change things up a little bit and we felt that in doing the 12 and 12, that by the time we got down to like the final eight, we’d been living with these kids for like eight weeks already and you know if any of them didn’t have you know fantastic characters it got a bit boring."
Warwick denies that DioGuardi's addition had anything to do with an eventual phasing out of Abdul. Then again, of course he'd deny that.
"There’s never been any discussion that we would want to get rid of Paula," he tells reporters. "You know, even if there were people in production that didn’t like here. You know, and Simon’s one of them. You know he waffles in and out, he likes her one minute, he loves her the next, he can’t stand her the next. The truth of the matter is we’ve never had a discussion of is her job in any jeopardy. No it's not, it’s not in any jeopardy. America loves Paula. She’s an integral part of this program. And as far as I’m concerned I hope she’s there until the day it comes off the air. End of story."
With Paula, no story can ever be ended that easily and Warwick is peppered with questions about Paula Goodspeed, an alleged stalker and former "Idol" auditioner whose body was found outside of Abdul's house last month. Abdul has subsequently claimed that producers knew Goodspeed was more than just a fan, a contention that Warwick contests.
"[I]f the inference is that I would put someone in there in front of them because it would be good television, then anyone who knows any of the shows I’ve made over the last 20 years will know I don’t do that," Warwick protests. "I just don’t. So the fact is, she [Paula] may have mentioned it to somebody. She certainly didn’t mention it to me. She certainly didn’t mention it to someone who had the clout to say, OK, we don’t let that person in. You know all I can say is personally, I wasn’t aware of it. End story. OK?"
Fine, then, end of story. What made the producers decide on DioGuardi as the new judge?
"[T]he reason we picked Kara is that invariably, the Idol, once they’ve been voted as the Idol, obviously, as you know, goes in to make an album and singles and all the rest of it, and Kara has always been instrumental at that point, in taking the Idol and... writing for them, producing them, making an album with them, or has been involved in the making of the album. So she’s probably the best qualified person to know what we’re looking for, which we thought was a good idea. She’s young, she’s opinionated, she's incredibly talented, also she’s a really good singer."
End of story.
Viewers will get to see how the "Idol" tinkering worked when the series returns to FOX on Tuesday, Jan. 13 and Wednesday Jan. 14.