Tried-and-True 'American Idol' Returns for Its 11th Season

Forget The X Factor and The Voice -- Idol is returning with confidence that it will remain the highest-rated show on TV

Celebrating its tenth year on the air this year, American Idol (premiering Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 8 p.m. ET on FOX) has given fans plenty of reasons to stay tuned throughout the years. From typical tearful eliminations and hilarious auditions to star mentors to fresh A-list faces on the judging panel, the show is as strong as ever. With a slew of new competition -- such as The Voice and The X Factor -- that has cropped up in the last year, how will producers remain competitive in the marketplace as season 11 begins? Well, by barely changing a thing! 

Executive producer Ken Warwick has no plans to mess with his winning formula for the show. It is premiering without much fanfare. No Super Bowl lead-in here, and no stream of news stories about shakeups at the judging table. When Idol debuts with auditions in Savannah, Ga., viewers can no doubt expect the usual mix of train wrecks and diamonds in the rough. This season, we'll see the same judges -- Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler -- and the same host, Ryan Seacrest. (Despite rumors that he's being considered to replace Matt Lauer as an anchor on Today, Seacrest has made no indication that he plans to leave Idol.)

Naturally, critics are greeting the return of Idol with a barrage of questions. Will the new season of the most-watched primetime TV show (for eight years running) maintain its place at the top of the ratings heap? How will it hold onto this humongous audience, which dwarfs by millions the viewership of both The Voice and The X Factor? Could this be the season when Idol fans finally begin to tire of those early audition rounds, with the usual, wannabe stars painfully unaware that they are off-key? Will they grow bored of the overall formula, or complain that at this point, they've heard Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" or Ella Fitzgerald's "Summertime" one time too many? Is the show's influence finally and inevitably declining?

As the media tosses about these trepidations, Warwick remains unflappable. "We try and make the American dream come true," he told critics during a recent TCA panel. "Our show is open to everybody. It's much better for our audience if they know that this kid was cleaning windows two months ago and this week they're No. 1 in the downloads. That's a show. That's something to get hooked into."

Besides a few tweaks, like introducing a night when competitors perform with just one instrument, the show will chug along like juggernauts do. Nearly 30 million viewers tuned in to see Scotty McCreery win a record deal last season, and his first album went on to go platinum. Clearly, the formula's working.

Naysayers will tell you that the TV marketplace isn't big enough for all of these talent competitions. But if American Idol wasn't toppled last year, after losing Simon Cowell and returning with two, untested new judges, it's hard to imagine the series falling on its face this season. For millions of Americans, Idol has become comfort TV, and that's a comfortable place to be.

Here's a little tease for the upcoming season to get you in the mood for tonight -- enjoy!:

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