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'American Idol' Adds a Leg to The Judges' Table

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Because when ratings dip on non-scripted TV shows, network and studio suits always shuffle around the women (see "Today" show, e.g.), Fox is adding a younger, female judge to the country's most popular show, "American Idol," when its eighth season begins in January.

Pop songwriter-producer Kara DioGuardi will join the singing competition show, which suffered a decline in ratings last year, as did virtually every other program on the prime-time landscape.

DioGuardi, who is young enough to be "Idol" judge Paula Abdul's kid sister, has the distinction of having been a judge on ABC's very short-lived "American Idol" wannabe "The One: Making a Music Star." It was the worst debuting TV series in the history of the major TV networks back in '06 and ABC yanked it after its second broadcast.

Fox says it is making the change for Paula's sake. Seriously, it did:

"For the past seven seasons, Paula has had to endure the experience of being the only woman at the judges' table," Mike Darnell, who oversees reality programming at the network, said in yesterday's announcement. "She's been an island of consideration and gentle criticism between Randy [Jackson] and Simon [Cowell], offering her invaluable expertise as a performer and No. 1 artist. . . . With Kara by her side, Paula finally has some backup and now there is going to be a lot more 'girl power' on the show."

During a phone interview with The Reporters Who Cover Television, DioGuardi said that while she somehow hasn't spoken to Paula since being hired, she's sure Paula is excited for her because they've been friends for a long time and co-wrote a song "early in my career" -- but, of course, not early in Paula's because she's way older. "I always had a great relationship with Paula," DioGuardi said. "I can't imagine her not being happy with it."

Interestingly, Paula seemed to give the hire a less than ringing endorsement during an interview on the syndicated "Johnjay and Rich" radio show.

Asked if she was excited about the addition, Paula responded, "Yeah . . . girl power. You know, I am concerned about the audience and acceptance. . . . But time will tell . . . ."

Paula has history on her side. The "Idol" brain trust decided to add a fourth judge -- New York DJ/hip-hop artist Angie Martinez -- for the start of the show's second season. But she quit after a few days, saying, "It became too uncomfortable for me to tell someone else to give up on their dream, especially when I realized that many of them have supported my career."

Even so, another of the show's plethora of exec producers, C├ęcile Frot-Coutaz, insisted they've seen from the overseas versions of the singing competition "that having a fourth judge creates a dynamic that benefits both the contestants and the viewers."

It also creates a problem in how to deal with ties in the early rounds, as the judges vote on whether an "Idol" hopeful makes it through to Hollywood Week. Reporters on the phone call asked DioGuardi how they were going to handle that. She hadn't a clue.

The addition of a fourth judge seems odd, given how little on-air time the three "Idol" judges had last season to critique the Idolettes. But the producers are clearly shaking up the show, which averaged more than 28 million viewers in its seventh season. While easily the most watched show of the 2007-08 TV season, "Idol" was down from the nearly 31 million it clocked in its heyday in '06. (However, May's final showdown between Idolettes David Cook and David Archuleta copped about 32 million viewers, up about 1 percent over the '07 season finale.)

Producer Simon Fuller acknowledged they were "turning the heat up" on the show. He said they were "thrilled" to add DioGuardi to the judges' table, because she is "smart" and "sassy." And, one of the country's "most successful songwriters."

To back up this claim, Fox noted that she is "Grammy-nominated." This is different from "Grammy-winning." That said, Fox said her songs have been recorded by actual Grammy-winning artists -- though they didn't win for her songs, it would seem.

The network listed a slew of them in its announcement, including Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Celine Dion, Santana and Pink. Also releasing DioGuardi songs are such pop-lite-ers as Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Taylor Hicks, Bo Bice -- not THE Bo Bice?! -- Clay Aiken, Hilary Duff, Jessica Simpson and Enrique Iglesias. You may know DioGuardi from her songs featured in Disney Channel's "Camp Rock," or "The Cheetah Girls 3," or the Hannah Montana flick.

In an "interview" somebody allegedly conducted that popped up on Fox's Web site yesterday, and which was far zippier than the one she held in the afternoon with the actual reporters, DioGuardi said she found out she was in the running for the gig when "my agent called me and he said, 'You are on a short list to be the fourth judge on 'AMERICAN IDOL,' and I said, 'Are you calling for me or did you dial the wrong number?' They were, like 'No, seriously this is going on, this can happen,' and I was, like, 'there is no way they are going to pick me. Why wouldn't they pick someone famous? Someone everyone knows?' But, you know, I guess they saw something about me that they thought was good, and they wanted to put somebody who was from the industry on the show, and so I got the job."

By that, we think she may have meant that when a David Cook, or someone, rips off someone's cover of, say, "Billie Jean" or whatev, she would recognize it for what it was -- as opposed to the other three judges, who might rave about, among other things, his originality.

While none of the reporters on yesterday's phoner was brave enough to take on the age question, "Idol" host/radio DJ Ryan Seacrest jumped right in when he interviewed DioGuardi on his ayem talk show.

"It's great to bring youth with us to the show," Seacrest said by way of a smooth opening line.

"I think you think I'm younger than I am," she responded.

She insisted he guess her age. After a couple of wrong guesses, he asked, "Are you 40!?"

"Close," she said.

"Wow! You are old," said Seacrest.

A minute later, clearly thinking they are off the air, she is heard saying, "I'm 37."

And that, pookie, is what it's like to be a woman working in the entertainment industry.

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