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'Idol': Exec talks Paula, season 8

Producer says he had ”no idea whatsoever” about Paula Goodspeed’s past, tips us off to some changes

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Michael Becker/Fox

American Idol executive producer Ken Warwick tells EW.com he had ”no idea whatsoever” that Paula Abdul fan Paula Goodspeed had been a long-time stalker of Abdul’s when she auditioned for the fifth season of the Fox show in 2005. Goodspeed’s body was discovered earlier this year in her car near Abdul’s home, an apparent suicide. Last week, while appearing on on ABC’s The View and Barbara Walters’ Sirius radio show, Abdul accused Idol producers of allowing Goodspeed to audition even after Abdul told them the woman had an unhealthy history with her ”I said, ‘This girl is a stalker of mine,”’ Abdul told Walters on the radio. ”’Please do not let her in.’ Everyone knew. I was shaking.”

”The whole event is terrible, obviously,” responds Warwick. ”[Paula] might have told someone [about Goodspeed]. I don’t know who it was. She certainly didn’t tell me at the time. I had no idea, and I was in the room. Normally, she would have told the security there. They’re the people who would handle it.” Warwick does acknowledge he knew Goodspeed was ”a fan” of Abdul’s. ”It was written on the notes.” But he hastens to add, ”if we think anybody is even on the cusp of being violent in any way, they don’t even get into the room. I would never contaminate the credibility of the show by putting someone dangerous or someone who would hurt themselves in that room. I just wouldn’t do it. It’s not worth it.”

This back-and-forth comes as Idol ramps up for its upcoming eighth season (premiering January 13). Warwick previews alterations to the semifinal stage of the competition — get ready for the Top 36! — among other significant changes:

Why a new judge? To make Simon unhappy
Songwriter and record producer Kara DioGuardi will join the show this season as its first permanent fourth judge. Warwick says that beyond the need to shake up the Idol format in its eighth season lest it get staid, he also wanted a fourth judge to keep Simon from ”always getting his own way.” In a tie, Simon gets the deciding vote, but Warwick says the net effect of DioGuardi’s presence on the panel was more contestants Simon didn’t like going on to Hollywood week: ”Sometimes, a kid who normally would have gone [home] comes to Hollywood, and they?re fabulous.”

Hollywood week will actually be in Hollywood
In seasons past, ”Hollywood week” really took place in the southern California city of Pasadena. This year, says Warwick, the show held the Hollywood stage of the auditions in Hollywood’s Kodak Theater, home of the Academy Awards and almost every American Idol finale. Warwick says the bigger backdrop brought out extra nerves in some of the auditioners, and extra nerve in others: ”If they were good, their passion to get through was more intense than it had been in previous years.” In fact, Hollywood week was so good this year, it will air over two weeks.

NEXT: On long-toothed mentors

Auditions: Kentucky good; Puerto Rico, not so much
Warwick reports that the standout cities this year were Phoenix, Ariz. and Louisville, Ken. — in fact, they shot some of the Louisville auditions at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. The biggest disappointment, says Warwick, was probably Puerto Rico. The show went to the U.S. territory hoping to bring more ”Latin flavor” to Idol, which Warwick admits has often been missing from the show. But, he says, ”We got a couple of good kids, but that was all. It was an awful long way to go for not a lot of result.” And as always, there will be a sizable helping of trainwreck auditions.

No Top 24 this season. Prepare for the Top 36!
In an effort to, as Warwick says, ”shake things up,” the semifinalist stage will expand from 24 to 36 contestants, and each semifinalist will get just one chance to perform before they either get axed or voted into the top 12. ”I?ve got different groups of kids every week now,” says Warwick. ”We are going to let go of more kids each week.” Much like the first two seasons of Idol, there will also be a wildcard stage where the judges select semi-finalists for the top 12. And you can forget ’80s night; Warwick’s plan is to have the top 36 sing from a catalog drawn from the top ten songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart since the chart began in the 1950s all the way to the present.

We may finally see some mentors under 30
Warwick is definitely aware that the mentors from previous years have been a bit long in the tooth. ”It’s [still] a wish list at the moment,” he says, ”[but] I’m trying to get [mentors] a little younger. I only like mentors who’ve had a string of hits, who have been there for a long time and actually have something of value to pass on. Saying that, there are some kids — and I call them kids, they’re not kids, they’re 24, 25 — that I’m going after [to be mentors].”

Motown is never, ever going away
Warwick is mum on upcoming theme nights, except for one: ”This is the 50th anniversary of Motown. Motown was so prevalent for so much of our [audience] demographic that it would be a crime not to do it. There?s enough stuff there to keep on going forever.”