American Idol is Fox's biggest hit show, but that doesn't mean there's no room for improvement. Viewers who watch the show's fourth season, which begins Tues., Jan. 18, will notice some changes. ''We want to make sure the show, whenever it can, gets as fresh as it can,'' executive producer Ken Warwick tells USA Today. ''We're doing a little, but not too much. The show works, so we don't want to overfix it.''
Among the tweaks: celebrity guest judges for the audition episodes, such pop vets as Kiss' Gene Simmons, LL Cool J, Brandy, and Kenny Loggins. (On the other hand, celebrity judges may vanish from the final rounds, where producers feel they have served as little more than timewasters.) As previously announced, producers also expanded the eligibility pool by four years to include singers as old as 28.
Most of the changes will be apparent during the semifinal rounds, which have traditionally been a drag on the show's ratings. The semifinals will be shortened from five weeks to three, but there will be three episodes a week instead of two. There will be just 24 semifinalists instead of 32. Starting Feb. 21, four men will perform each Monday and four women each Tuesday, with viewers voting to eliminate the bottom two from each group on Wednesdays, for a total of six male and six female finalists. However, the ''Going to Hollywood'' episodes, in which judges winnow the top 200 nationwide auditioners down to the 24 semifinalists, will be expanded from two episodes to four, starting Feb. 8.
There's one more change, one that should be welcome to both fans and Fox execs worried about possible overexposure. Warwick tells Variety that there will be fewer total episodes this year, including fewer of those filler ''special'' episodes during the competition. ''We're keeping quite a tight hold on how many shows we do,'' he says.