Get the dirt on ''American Idol'''s spin-off. ''American Juniors'' will be hosted by Ryan Seacrest, but Simon Cowell won't be invited to play

By Liane Bonin
Updated July 01, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

With Ryan Seacrest set to host ”American Juniors” (debuts June 3 on Fox, 8 p.m.), the ”American Idol” spin-off featuring kids aged 6 to 13 already looks a lot like a pint-size version of the original. Still, even though the new series features the same cutthroat competition and the same jackpot for the winner (a recording deal), plenty is different for ”Juniors”’ idols in training. talked to coexecutive producer Ken Warwick to discover what’s out (outtakes of the comically tuneless tryout tapes), what’s new (making the grade), and what’s missing (Simon, go sit in the corner).

PLAYING WELL WITH OTHERS Unlike ”Idol,” this show will encourage sharing. ”We’re not looking for a single person, but five winners to bring together as a group,” says Warwick. ”The pressures and strains at this level of the music business are too much for one young person, so this way they’ll have four mates to go through it with them.” Hey, it worked for the Jackson Fi… oh, never mind.

COORDINATION IS KEY Ruben may be able to linger in one spot for an entire performance, but the kids aren’t so lucky. Once the cut is made to the final 10, they will be expected to learn and perform coordinated dance steps à la ‘N Sync. ”It’s structured dancing, not wiggling all over the stage,” says Warwick. Darn.

NO SIMON SAYS While the show is still in negotiations to fill its three judges seats, don’t look for Simon Cowell to sign up. It’s just as well, since the producers aren’t looking to scar any 6-year-olds for life. ”They’ll be none of the negative criticisms that he does,” says Warwick. ”We wouldn’t let Simon anywhere near them.” Instead, judges will be chosen based on their music industry cred AND ability to be positive. And lucky them, no celebrity guest judges will be horning in on their screen time.

GRADES COUNT To appeal to the tyke mindset (and their industry-aspiring parents), performances will be graded. ”Giving a kid a B+ or an A- will give them a taste of what the judges think, but it won’t be as acid as ‘Idol’ can be.” But could kids get a sour-tasting F? ”Who knows?” says Warwick. ”But I doubt it. Some of these kids are amazing.”

EVERYONE’S A WINNER… So much for sweating it out in the bottom two each week. Instead of singling out any one kid for elimination, a child from each group will be chosen to make up the 10 semifinalists. Then a winner, instead of a loser, will make the cut each week until the group of five is formed. There will be no judges’ wild cards, so winners will be chosen based strictly on viewer votes. ”The bottom five will go off to Disneyland or something like that,” says Warwick. ”We want to keep it upbeat.”

…EXCEPT THE GROWN-UPS Even though there won’t be any of ”Idol”’s laughably bad audition tapes (making fun of off-key second graders just isn’t cool) or Simon’s critiques, there’s nothing stopping us from rolling our eyes at the more dimwitted parents, who’ll get a considerable amount of screen time. ”They’re adults, so they’re in the game,” warns Warwick. And stage moms should be forewarned: If they’re seen being a royal pain, voters could kick their talented kid to the curb.

MAKEUP IS FOR MOMS ONLY Kids who look like creepy pageant contenders — whether that entails adult hairstyles, lipstick, or suggestive clothing — will not be allowed to compete. ”We don’t want cute little adults,” says Warwick, adding that parents are advised of this policy well before audition time.

KIDS SAY THE DARNEDEST THINGS Instead of watching Clay and Ruben crashing movie premieres, we’ll see the tiniest kids being interviewed. ”Some of it’s quite funny, like when we asked how much they hoped to make when they’re stars and getting the response, ‘Oh, 10 dollars!”’ says Warwick. Well, after you pay your agent and manager, that sounds about right.