By Lisa De Moraes

“We listened to the viewers and they told us they’re fed up with the middle rounds after Hollywood Week and before the live shows, so we’ve shortened all of that down, condensed the middle round into one week – we’re calling it Rush Week,” American Idol exec producer Trish Kinane told TV critics at Winter TV Press Tour 2014.

They’ve also added something called The Chamber, where Idolettes go after host Ryan Seacrest tells them that in a couple minutes they’ve got to “give it their all,” Kinane explained, where we’ll see them pray, sing, check their armpits for sweat — whatever. “It’s a very intimate moment,” she told critics.

“We didn’t want to do anything radical,” Kinane said of the many changes in store for this year’s competition. “The original format really works,” she said. But “we went back and examined every single element of the show, from the talent search right through to the finale,” she said. The end result? “It’s still absolutely American Idol. But it’s a million tiny decisions and little refreshments that make a fresher whole.”

Fox and the producers are tinkering because the show last season suffered a second consecutive 20% dive in overall audience, as viewers fled the caterwauling and antics of judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. The singing competition also lost the demo to NBC’s The Voice for the first time. In response, judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey both discovered their schedules were too busy to return for another season, Jennifer Lopez returned after one season off, new judge Harry Connick Jr. was brought in, Keith Urban became last season’s sole survivor and Randy Jackson was moved over to the mentor slot.

Jackson will be featured heavily during Rush Week. “It’s a new part of the show not done before, a sort of Randy Jackson workshop,” Kinane explained. “Randy is going to be hosting a two day workshop in which the kids who got through will be taught things like how to choose a song, what’s your style, how do you want to look…how to look after their voice.”

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American Idol debuts with a two-night, four-hour premiere Wednesday, January 15 and Thursday, January 16.

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