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’American Idol’ hopes for a lucky 13th season

Keith Urban was wrapping up a recent interview about American Idol when Harry Connick Jr. breezed into a backstage room, ready for his turn.

“He talks and talks and talks,” Connick said, gleefully needling his fellow Idol judge. “Get out.”

Urban replied in kind, telling Connick he’d answered a reporter’s questions for him: “I said it would make for a better interview.”

The musicians’ good-natured digs suggest a fresh start for American Idol after a sour season in which the bickering between judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, with Urban stuck in the middle, was anything but entertaining.

Urban, newcomer Connick and Jennifer Lopez, who’s returning after a season’s absence, have the task of helping the singing contest find its footing and stop a ratings slide in its 13th season that begins today.

They have help from two new executive producers, replacements for the longtime team that guided American Idol through an unprecedented nine-year streak as TV’s No. 1 program to the loss of that crown in 2013.

Besides the show’s own missteps, other talent shows including NBC’s hit The Voice and Fox’s own The X Factor, although struggling, have grabbed audience attention.

But the show’s ability to rebound shouldn’t be underestimated, say producers Per Blankens, who produced the successful Swedish Idol, and Trish Kinane.

American Idol is “still the best format in the world. . . . Our job is to go back to basics,” Blankens said. That includes “a panel that’s good, and like what they’re doing, and could consider eating lunch together, because it all starts there.”

The judges say they not only enjoy each other’s company but also agree their role on the show is secondary.

“The focus should be in the front,” Urban said, referring to the young singers he was assessing during a taping last month for the elimination stage known as Hollywood Week.

At a news conference Monday, the country star expanded on the panel’s shared view of what is owed the contestants.

“It’s a really daunting thing,” Urban said. “You know, they’ve got no microphone, no audience, no band, no music, nothing, and they stand in front of us and sing. And all three of us have so much respect for that.”

The judges also need to be educators, Connick said.

“This is my whole mantra for the show: If there’s anything I can communicate, passion and education aren’t exclusive. People say, ‘I just want to play what I feel.’ I play what I feel. But the definition of passion to me is learning everything about your craft,” he said.

With what Kinane called solid “chemistry” in place for the panel, she and Blankens turned their attention to the production itself. The talent search was expanded to include outreach to people unable to get to big-city auditions, and an element called the “chamber” was added.

It involves a private room – save for a camera – in which contestants have a chance to ready themselves for their initial meeting with the judges, whether through rehearsal, prayer or just a grooming check, Kinane said.

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