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January 15, 2014 at 1:17 PM

American Idol 2014 — decline or rebirth?

(Jim Bates / The Seattle Times)

Harry Connick is a judge on the new season of “American Idol.” (Jim Bates / The Seattle Times)

“American Idol” started the current TV singing contest craze in the U.S. a dozen years ago, bringing to the fore such current pop stars as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson.

But by 2013, the show had lost its mojo and many of its longtime viewers. You can blame that tumble on a stale format, a too often squabbling and inane panel of judges and competition from other TV singing shows — particularly NBC’s slicker, snappier “The Voice.”

But there is too much history and money tied up in the  “American Idol” franchise to let the show go down without a fight.  Rather than try to copy-cat its chief rival, “AI” has produced a  premiere episode suggesting another strategy to win back old fans and attract new ones.

A season-opener airing tonight on Fox (screened for the press Tuesday) suggests that the quality of the tweaked program rests in good measure on using a more appealing, collegial crew of celebrity judges and accentuating what makes “AI” unique.

From chirpy host Ryan Seacrest’s narration to whirlwind, montage-style editing and sentimental back-story snippets about auditioners trying out in Boston and Austin, the two-hour episode reminds viewers that this is all about untried, fresh-faced young people seeking a shot at the American Music Biz Dream of fast-track fame and fortune.

That theme contrasts with “The Voice”‘s grittier focus on hard-working professional singers, many of whom have struggled for years to break through, going head to head vocally after  “blind” auditions before convivial but fiercely competitive celeb judges.

It is apples and oranges, in a way.  But by centering much less on the freakiest, worst auditioners than in previous opening shows,  and more on eager, naive kids of unproven but palpable talent, “AI” is clearly trying to highlight its Americana fairytale essence.

At the same time, by adding Harry Connick Jr. to a panel that includes two likable returning judges — pop diva Jennifer Lopez and country idol Keith Urban — the show is also making a bid for more musical legitimacy. Connick’s movie star good looks and his quick, sometimes biting wit and goofball antics help keep matters lively over that long two hours.

But Connick’s refined ear and technical music chops,  his skills as a first-rate singer-pianist-bandleader jazz/pop artist, are also evident in his comments to fellow judges, and to the nervous hopefuls trying to get their “ticket to Hollywood” in an early round of the contest.

At one point, he explains what a pentatonic scale is to Lopez, who reacts as if he’s speaking to her in Swahili. More telling is the way he calls Lopez and Urban out for their susceptibility to singers who embellish their vocals with a lot of show-offy high notes and other sonic bric-a-brac.

Will Connick be able to hold his own against two softer touches and continue to give honest, incisive critiques to contestants who may be popular for the wrong reasons?  The fact that Connick also comes off as a nice guy (nicer than the show’s former tough-judge, Simon Cowell)  and often cracks jokes at his own expense could help him get away with it.

But those differences between the judges may be the main tension in this season of “AI,” along with whether the overall quality of raw talent meets a higher standard than in recent years.

The show is reportedly ramping up the behind-the-scenes coaching.  Other changes: expanded song choices to include more contemporary pop tunes; letting the viewing public vote earlier in the process to help decide the Top 13 contestants; and, creepily, the new “Chamber” — a closet-sized holding pen where the singers must stand before they perform, with a camera capturing every trickle of flop-sweat.

Will all this be enough to win back viewers the show has lost?

“American Idol” begins its 13th season Wednesday, Jan. 15 and continues with a second episode Thursday.  Both shows air at 8 p.m., on the Fox network.

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