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February 12, 2011

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Reality TV critics turn on the charm

WHEN a husky, mustached auditioner awkwardly snaps his way through Billy Joel's "The Longest Time" in front of Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson, something totally out of the ordinary happens: They don't make fun of him.

Instead, the new "American Idol" judging team encourages him to become a disc jockey instead of a singer.

It seems the essence of Simon Cowell has been exorcised from the 10th season of "Idol." If clips of the first series of auditions are any indication, Tyler and Lopez will be hugging and kissing more "Idol" wannabes in their inaugural season than Cowell ever did in his nine nasty years on the Fox singing competition.

"I think with every artist, and Jennifer and Steven are legendary artists, you have a lot of warmth and a lot of nurturing," says Jackson, the lone original judge remaining on the panel. "That's what happens. We've seen it in other seasons when we've had artists come in and mentor the singers. They really lavish love on these kids, and I think that's good."

It is not the first time "Idol" has injected such niceness into its permanent judging panel. One year ago, viewers were preparing for chipper talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who acknowledged she had no music industry experience, to take a seat behind the table. She left after one season because she said it was hard to judge people and hurt their feelings.

The departures of DeGeneres, Cowell and two-term judge Kara DioGuardi have opened the way for a new kind of "Idol," one that will either bounce back from a ratings slump or slip further away from the top spot. American viewers have never known an "Idol" that does not feature Cowell's rolling eyes, one-liners or antagonistic adjectives. Will they embrace it?

Make it fun

"We're certainly back to having fun," says executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who rejoined the singing competition after a two-year hiatus. "At some point along the way, and we're certainly all guilty of it, we started taking ourselves too seriously. I know the ratings are a serious game, but as far as I'm concerned, my job and their job is to generate fun."

Such an attitude adjustment is not confined to "Idol." Paula Abdul, the original heart of the "Idol" panel, has taken her fairy godmother routine to the new CBS hip-shaking competition "Live to Dance," where she is quick to remind everyone that she now serves as a mentor, not a judge, although she and her expert team do give gold stars to worthy dancers.

"It's not about, 'Oooh. You're eliminated. You didn't make it'," Abdul says of the show's dismissal ritual at the West Coast auditions last year. "It's about a celebration of who is advancing to the finals. It's a paradigm shift. It's about how we're going to, as experts, help these acts to nail that next audition, even though they're not making this one."

"Live to Dance" already is favoring sugar over spice, judging by last week's first semifinal love fest. Abdul, along with Michael Jackson's "This Is It" choreographer Travis Payne and former Pussycat Dolls member Kimberly Wyatt, handed out 11 gold stars and seven dreaded red ones, with just one act receiving unanimous disapproval from the show's three experts.

Perhaps the "Live to Dance" experts are taking a cue from the "Dancing With the Stars" judges, who have typically treated celebrities-turned-dancers with kid gloves.


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