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Tweaked "American Idol" returns with new judge

American Idol returns for its eighth season on Tuesday with a new judge, a better showcase for talented singers and a wary eye on its status as America’s most-watched television show.

The five-month search for a new star kicks off with a two-night, four-hour premiere featuring the familiar blend of hundreds of hopeful, and sometimes hopeless, contestants auditioning in cities across the nation.

But producers have tweaked the formula to keep viewers tuning in en masse after last year, when the numbers of “American Idol” faithful slipped to about 28.1 million per episode from an average 30.8 million in 2006.

The 2009 season adds a fourth judge — songwriter and producer Kara DioGuardi — gives more broadcast time to the popular Hollywood round, where promising contestants show off their skills, and brings back the ” wild card ” round for a place in the coveted final 12.

Executive producer Ken Warwick has told journalists the changes had been made “to make it more interesting,” but denied that the show’s makers were in a panic over lower ratings.

Since its inception in 2002 on the Fox network, “American Idol” has produced bonafide stars like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood through a viewer-driven voting format that has been adopted by many other TV shows.

The program and its singers are followed around the world — either live or in taped broadcasts — in 100 nations, and the show has even inspired a Walt Disney World theme park attraction due to open in Florida in February.

DioGuardi said male contestants had the edge over the women this season, judging by early auditions. “There is a uniqueness to some of the male contestants in terms of their voices and the songs they are singing. There at least five that are great,” she said.

DioGuardi’s addition to the lineup of Paula Abdul Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell — who decide which singers go home in early rounds — sets up some dramatic splits among the judges. The acerbic Cowell has the tie-breaking vote.

The return of “American Idol” comes two months after the suicide in November of a former contestant and obsessed fan who took an overdose in her car outside Abdul’s Los Angeles home. The woman, Paula Goodspeed, was ridiculed by the judges in her 2005 audition.

Cowell said last month that Goodspeed’s suicide hit the show “like an express train” and forced him to reflect on his harsh comments to bad singers.

But Cowell and “Idol” producers said the incident wouldn’t prompt any major changes in the show.

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