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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "American Idol" will focus less on early auditions and give more time to performers who make it to Hollywood when the top-rated U.S. television talent show returns to the air in January, producers said on Monday.
The 2009 season also sees the addition of a fourth judge and the return of the popular "wild card" round for contestants vying to get a coveted place among the final twelve singers who compete against each other on the program.
But Paula Abdul is "worth her weight in gold" and in no danger of losing her place as a judge, executive producer Ken Warwick said in telephone conference with journalists.
As the five-month long search for a new pop star enters its 8th season, audiences have slipped from an average of 30.8 million per episode in 2006 to 28.1 million in 2008.
But Warwick said American TV audiences had fallen across the board last year. "There were no panic changes...I expect the (audience) figures will probably drop a bit more, but I'm not ashamed because we have eight years of success behind us," he told journalists on a telephone conference call.
Since its inception in 2002, "American Idol" has produced bona fide stars such as Kelly Clarkson, country singer Carrie Underwood and Oscar-winning singer/actress Jennifer Hudson.
Warwick added that producers had tweaked the format slightly for the new season "to make it more interesting."
The two-night, four-hour premiere on the Fox network January 13 will be the first show since the apparent suicide in November of an obsessed Abdul fan and former "Idol" hopeful.
Paula Goodspeed's overdose in a car outside Abdul's Los Angeles home shed an unwelcome spotlight on the ridicule of bad singers in early "Idol" audition rounds and the wisdom of allowing unstable fans to compete.
Warwick said the 8th season will have its share of hopeless contestants but there will be less time given to the early auditions which attract hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
He denied claims by Abdul that "Idol" producers had dismissed her fears about letting Goodspeed audition in 2005 and broadcasting her embarrassing performance.
"If the inference is that I would put someone there because it would be good television, then anyone who knows any of the shows I've made over the last 20 years would know I don't do that," he said.
Warwick said security was in place at "Idol" auditions to deter fans or performers regarded as dangerous. "(Goodspeed's death) was a very unfortunate situation...Other than give everyone a psych test before they walk through the doors, we do the best we possibly can."
The new season will give an extra week to the "Hollywood Round", where promising contestants get more time to show their skills to the judges before they are narrowed down to 36.
The addition of a fourth judge -- singer and producer Kara DioGuardi -- to the panel of Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Abdul has shaken up the dynamics, Warwick said.
But he denied speculation that DioGuardi was a potential replacement for the often emotional Abdul.
"There has never been any discussion that we would want to get rid of Paula....America loves Paula. She is an integral part of this program. She keeps Simon well under control. She is worth her weight in gold," he said.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte