The Fox hit reality show returns with new judges including Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, and Keith Urban

By Adam B. Vary
Updated January 04, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

Premieres: January 16, 8 PM, FOX

Group night strikes fear in the heart of many an Idol contender. But how daunting is it for exec producers Ken Warwick, who handles much of the physical production, and Nigel Lythgoe, who’s got ”the lucky job of looking after the judges,” as Ken drily puts it? ”It’s a bit like herding cats,” says Lythgoe. ”Only less successful!” adds Warwick. The three newest cats to join the Idol circus — judges Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, and Nicki Minaj — aren’t afraid to bare their claws on occasion. When EW visited the boys-only section of Hollywood Week (which actually takes place at the California State University, Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley) for an exclusive look at the new season, the judges were on their best behavior. As Idol‘s veteran Svengalis walked us through how they keep the No. 1 show on TV humming as it heads into season 12, though, it was clear that they still have their hands full.

4:30 PM
When the first group takes the stage to sing ”Some Kind of Wonderful,” Minaj, Urban, and Randy Jackson are all in their seats, but Carey is missing. ”If I say, ‘I want to start at this time,’ I need to start at that time,” says Lythgoe, who notes that every judge has been tardy. ”I can’t afford to wait for people.” (Once the group finishes, Carey does finally take her seat.)

4:40 PM
Lythgoe walks up to the judges’ table to oversee their deliberations as to who’s getting cut. Occasionally, he’ll step in with a deciding vote. ”When the judges are split two and two, they’ll say, ‘What does production think?”’ explains Lythgoe. ”And I’ll say, ‘Well, we’d like to keep that person. They’re a story. For now.”’

4:55 PM
Lythgoe is embroiled in a protracted debate over a group that includes a returning contestant from season 11. Both exec producers say they’re thrilled with how … opinionated this year’s panel is — but Lythgoe insists he did not leak the video of Minaj and Carey fighting on set in October. ”I was furious about it. I don’t think it does us any favors whatsoever,” he says. ”If I was going to have leaked something like that, I would be doing it just after Christmas, when it’s relevant!”

5 PM
Host Ryan Seacrest and Carey’s husband, Nick Cannon, join the scrum of execs, producers, PAs, managers, and stylists in the audience (all of whom appear to own blinged-out iPhones). ”[When] you are talking with huge stars,” says Warwick, ”it’s a question of telling one person what to do, and them asking their entourage. It sometimes gets complicated.”

5:10 PM
The next crew of contestants takes the stage, announcing their name as ”Cowboys and Queens.” Two of the guys are classic country & Western types — and one is wearing high heels, tight pants, makeup, and what can only be described as a fashion rattail. ”Some [contestants] are gay,” says Warwick matter-of-factly. ”Some are overtly gay. Some are obnoxiously gay. That’s part of the appeal of the show: It’s the American dream. It doesn’t matter who you are; you stand a chance.”

5:28 PM
Warwick wasn’t kidding. During a different group performance, two male singers — their personalities dialed to 11 — proudly belt out Estelle’s ”American Boy.”

6 PM
We’re done! As Lythgoe leaves for a play produced by his ex-wife and son, Warwick brings the 40 or so remaining male contestants back into the auditorium to impress upon them just how vital the next stage is for them. ”Pick a song that shows off your full ability — anything mediocre tomorrow is a waste of time,” he says. ”Very often, tomorrow’s the first time I see the person I think is going to be the American Idol. So don’t play it safe.”

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

  • TV Show
  • 16
  • 574
  • ABC