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‘American Idol’ hoping to stay in tune

In 11th season, talent showcase has a formula for success

Fox’s “American Idol’’ returns with its trio of judges/personalities (from left) Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson.

frank micelotta/fox

Fox’s “American Idol’’ returns with its trio of judges/personalities (from left) Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson.

PASADENA, Calif. - When “American Idol’’ returns to the airwaves tonight there will be roughly 800 singing/talent competitions on TV.

Or at least it will feel that way.

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With vocal showdowns proliferating like notes in an Aguilera-sung vowel, what will the granddaddy of the format do to freshen things up for its 11th season? Not much, apparently.

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Among the talent launched by “American Idol’’ is Katharine McPhee, who will star in the upcoming NBC musical drama “Smash.’’

Staying the course seems to be the theme, as last year’s newbie judges - Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and Jennifer Lopez of the block - settle into their seats alongside Randy Jackson of the limited critical vocabulary. The new season begins tonight and tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 25.

The judges, host Ryan Seacrest, producers Ken Warwick and Cécile Frot-Coutaz, and the head of alternative programming for Fox, Mike Darnell attended the Television Critics Association press tour recently. In addition to queries about Seacrest’s potential future with the “Today’’ show (he couldn’t comment) and whether or not the judges will be tougher this year (doesn’t look like it), there were plenty of questions focused on the crowded talent show landscape, and whether audiences have reached a saturation point with all of this talent America has got.

While the group played nice with “The X Factor’’ - which stars their former pals and network buddies Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, and is also overseen by Darnell - they had plenty of choice words for NBC’s “The Voice,’’ which recently announced inaugural “Idol’’ winner Kelly Clarkson as a mentor for its upcoming second season, set to kick off after the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.

Darnell views Clarkson’s appearance on “The Voice’’ as a compliment to “Idol,’’ and validation of its place as the show that creates superstars. “We’re not hiring a lot of people from ‘The Voice’ to be on our show,’’ he said.

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Kelly Clarkson will be a mentor for contestants on NBC’s “The Voice.’’

Added Jackson, “Yeah, it’s great that we can invent some talent for ‘The Voice.’ ’’

Clarkson might bristle a bit at the use of the word “invent,’’ but “Idol’’ producers aren’t incorrect in their insistence that few of the other shows have spawned as many commercially successful artists - be they winners like Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, or deeper-in-the-pack runners-up like Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson. (Or finalist Katharine McPhee, who looks poised to finally make good on her “Idol’’ launching pad with upcoming NBC musical drama “Smash.’’) Last year’s winner, country singer Scotty McCreery, broke a commercial cold snap for the most recent winners when his debut album went platinum. Given the slumping nature of record sales, Jackson noted that success is rare, indeed.

And, Jackson added for good measure, “the winner of ‘The Voice’ [Javier Colon], as I will remind you, was an artist that had a deal at Capitol Records for many years, a failed contract over there. So it’s almost like that show, it was almost like second chance people.’’

Speaking of second chances, the one big format change from season 10, the post-Hollywood week performance challenges - last season this included Beatles tunes in Las Vegas - will return. Frot-Coutaz says this year the contestants will compete with ’50s songs and in a “one voice, one instrument’’ challenge. Otherwise, all else remains the same - from the screechy auditions to the judges save to Tyler’s uniquely bent verbal improvisations.

Darnell was very much of the if it ain’t broke mind-set. “ ‘American Idol’ is the gold standard of this stuff. And to be honest, what we are experiencing right now is kind of a wave. We’ve had several waves of competitors over the last 10 years, and this show has stood up extraordinarily tall,’’ he said. “Let’s not forget that last year, we all sat here, and a lot of this group and a lot of the world was suspicious that we couldn’t come back with this television show, and it came roaring back. So I think the biggest difference is this is the show the audience loves, and this is the show the audience wants to come back to.’’

While critics and some viewers may complain about the often-contradictory kid-glove judging, terribly cheesy lip-synched group numbers, and the perils of allowing viewers limitless voting power, the ratings certainly bear Darnell out as “Idol’’ remains at the top of the heap.

“When ‘Idol’ started, there was only one of its kind, and the truth is now there’s a lot of these shows,’’ said Frot-Coutaz. “It’s therefore a more competitive marketplace; but in the end, competition is good. It’s good for everybody. It means you have to raise your game. You have to be better. And that’s what we try and do. That’s the only thing we can do. Then what the viewers choose to do is not in our control. What’s in our control is our television show. And we work really hard every year to bring something fresh, something that’s relevant, that’s exciting and entertaining and hopefully delivers a star at the end. I think last year we did a pretty good job of it, and this year it’s our intention to do the same.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.
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