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A television phenomenon for the new millennium, American Idol premiered in June 2002 and scored huge ratings for Fox, pioneered the singing competition genre and launched the careers of superstars like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson.

When the show ended its run on Fox in April 2016, host Ryan Seacrest signed off saying, “Goodnight America…for now,” leaving the door open for the possibility of a return. Two years later—sooner than some might have predicted—the resurrected Idol’s sixteenth season premieres on ABC this month, with new judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry presiding.

American Idol

Otherwise, the format remains the same, and Seacrest will continue to host as well as executive produce the show. “You've got three different faces. You have different contestants. But to change the show drastically in terms of format would be a mistake,” he says.

Seacrest’s participation requires major planning---and a lot of time on planes, because he’s juggling Idol, which is based in Los Angeles, with his weekday morning gig on Live with Kelly and Ryan. The judges also had to work around their busy touring and recording schedules, but it was worth it to them to become part of the show.

"American Idol and I have always been circling each other, and it just hasn't been the right timing,” says Katy Perry. “Now after ten years of aging and learning and providence, I can take all that information and really mentor and give constructive criticism, because that's really what we do.”

Luke BryanCountry music star Luke Bryan reveals that he’s had opportunities to take part in other music TV shows, but turned them down because he always focused on touring. When American Idol offered a seat at the judges’ table, “I jumped right on it. It was never a moment’s thought for me,” he says. “I’m on the emotional ride with these kids. I get wrapped up in the moment and the pageantry and the dreams coming true.”

Elder statesman Lionel Richie saw taking part in American Idol as a way to reach people and share his expertise, as he does in the Master Class instructional videos he’s made. “We're artists, and we know exactly how to critique talent,” says the five time Grammy winner and recent Kennedy Center Honors recipient, who was guest judge on idol in season two. “We’ve all been there before. When we see these artists, we see ourselves.”

Perry, herself a former guest judge in season nine, remembers her days as a struggling artist. “I was there ten years ago. I had two cars repossessed. I had three labels drop me. I was couchsurfing. I was eating Trader Joe's frozen chicken nuggets every day of the week,” she says, calling the chance to be re-inspired by contestants’ dreams, hope, and ambition “a gift.”

Lionel RichieWhile American Idol was originally built on the snarky personality of Simon Cowell and his testy interactions with fellow judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, there was no mandate to recreate their volatile chemistry or the big personalities that Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Keith Urban or any other judge brought to the table.

”There is only one Simon Cowell. We weren't looking to replicate that,” says executive producer and showrunner Trish Kinane. “We took a long time to put this judging panel together, and that was because we wanted to get it right. We wanted judges with credibility, who knew what they were talking about, were huge successes in their own right, who were articulate and who generally cared about the contestants.”

“We wanted people to come on the show to collaborate, to take this seriously, and to give the franchise what it deserves because the legacy of this franchise is important to the fans,” adds Ryan Seacrest. “It's important to us who have worked on it for a long time.  And what stands out is how legitimately seriously these three were looking at the past, but toward the future and making [Idol] great again.”

“We all have our strengths and expertise,” adds Katy Perry. “Luke can speak on a lot more country things. Lionel can speak on everything because he's a legend. I've got my pop lane. Lionel is the legacy. He tells all these stories about Whitney [Houston] and Prince. Luke is a really good nurturer and he leads people to whatever path they need to be on. And I am very serious about it. I do the jokes and get up and dance but I'm a straight shooter. I'm very cut-and-dried and get straight to the point.”

Katy PerryKaty is very blunt,” Kinane confirms. “She's not mean, but she's brutally honest. And she feels these contestants, but if she doesn't think they've got what it takes, she will try and steer them somewhere else.”

Lionel Richie admits that despite all the judges’ experience, it was “a little awkward” at first. “That first day was a learning curve for us. We were sitting there watching these kids walk in, and it took us a moment to find our own place.”

But they quickly got down to the mission at hand: finding the next American Idol, one with the superstar staying power of Clarkson, Underwood and Hudson. “There were a few years where you don’t really remember the contestants. We don’t want it to go that way,” says Luke Bryan. Katy Perry adds, “We are wasting our time if we do not find a star. That is our purpose.”

Toward that end, they’ll waste little time on bad singers, contestants who were allowed to audition for the judges in the past for comic relief. “Fifteen years ago it was funny. But it doesn’t feel comfortable to put borderline unstable people up and laugh at them,” says Trish Kinane. “But humor is an important part of Idol. If someone is eccentric we’ll bring them in. We want the humor but we don’t want the exploitation.”

Another factor to which she attributes American Idol’s appeal and success was its pioneering use of texting in the weekly elimination votes. “It was cutting-edge technology. There’s hilarious clip of Ryan, with this huge phone, showing America how to text,” Kinane recalls. “I think that meant that the viewers really engaged with the contestants and followed them and, therefore, felt invested in their success. Carrie and Kelly and Adam [Lambert]--you wanted them to be successful because you were part of making them a star.”

American Idol

“I think that people will remember the stars that they helped create,” Katy Perry agrees. “This show is interactive in a way where you feel really invested, like you are a part of that process, you are growing with them. I think we all like to discover something and feel like it's our own and watch it bloom in a beautiful way. I think that a lot of viewers will see themselves in a lot of these contestants. And they will relate. They will feel hope. They will feel good. They will learn something, and hopefully just be inspired that they can, too, achieve their dreams.”

American Idol
premieres Mar. 11 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. / Issue 200 - August 2018
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