LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Is "American Idol" and its new judging panel going soft this year?
Yes, says executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. Brutal honesty was the right tone when the TV talent show and Britain's Simon "Mr. Nasty" Cowell brought a breath of fresh air to U.S. television 10 years ago.
But times have changed, economically and socially, and that's why newcomers Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and old hand Randy Jackson sent a record 300 plus wannabe pop stars from nationwide auditions onto a second round in Hollywood this year.
"I believe these are times when we need to be warmer, brighter, and we need to think we have a future," Lythgoe told reporters on a conference call on Thursday.
"If we can translate that into kids coming on this show from flipping burgers one day to ending up as the star of a television series, then we are showing everyone there is a way out of our lives," Lythgoe said.
Lythgoe said judges and producers have been less harsh and more willing to give contestants a second chance in the early stages of the top-rated show. Some 60 contestants are still in with a chance of making it to the top 12.
"The judges this year have been particularly finicky and careful about giving people a second opportunity because they know everyone screws up with nerves," he said.
"American Idol" has undergone a major revamp in its 10th season following the exit of Cowell in May, four years of declining ratings for broadcaster Fox and lackluster record sales for recent winners.
Some 22.8 million viewers tuned in to Wednesday's episode, down from 24.1 million a week earlier, but the show is holding onto its status as the most-watched show on U.S. television.
"We have held up brilliantly considering we are in the 10th season and we have lost two stars in Paula (Abdul) and Simon. We are in a very good place," Lythgoe said.
The addition of Aerosmith frontman Tyler to the panel, along with Tyler talking of starting work on a much-delayed new album with the band, has led to fevered speculation that the veteran rockers might play a role on the TV show.
But the usually chatty Lythgoe was tight-lipped when asked about a possible Aerosmith tie-in or performance.
"I can say nothing about it. I am terrible sorry. I can say nothing", he said.
"I am not doing a show with Aerosmith. I am doing a show with Steven Tyler... Aerosmith just aren't in my thoughts when I am dealing with Steven Tyler," he added.