Keith Urban’s opinion of the strongest contenders on American Idol is a bit more comprehensive than popular sentiment of seasons past. “Ideally, you find someone who can do all of it: great live, great singers and great in the studio,” says the country star, who serves as an Idol judge alongside Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr.
That fancied trifecta of talent is reflected in some of the changes the reality competition show has incorporated as it begins its 14th season tonight on Fox. This time around, the show will place more emphasis on live performances. The 48 top contestants sent to Hollywood sang before the judges and an audience at Los Angeles’ famous House of Blues nightclub in December, allowing the judges to see them in a more natural setting than an audition stage.
The biggest shift is that the show will downgrade from airing two nights a week to one, once they narrow down to the final 10 contestants. That means results will air the same night as the performances, instead of stretching out the weekly performances and elimination over two nights. While still immensely popular, Idol‘s ratings have dropped and the move is seen as a way to goose viewership by giving instant results.
Additionally, Big Machine Label Group head Scott Borchetta, known for signing such acts as Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line, has joined the show as a mentor. He replaces Randy Jackson, who moved from judge to mentor last season, and former Interscope Records head Jimmy Iovine, who served as a mentor from 2011 to 2013.
Urban, who returns for his third year as a judge, compares his role on the show to that of a talent scout. “It’s like the A&R department in a record company where we’re trying to discover untapped talent that has potential… or finding talent that is ready to go and just needs the break,” he says.
This year’s judges’ panel is the same as last season, which gives viewers and contestants a sense of familiarity, Urban says. “Being the second season with the three of us, now people knew what they were coming into.”
As Urban told Rolling Stone Country last year, eliminating contestants remains the hardest part and takes him right back to his days on talent search shows growing up in Australia. “Finding really great artistry is important,” he says. “Seeing it in people sometimes is very difficult to do. I would not have seen what I eventually became in me. I don’t see it when I see [early footage] of me. But I had some sort of determination. That counted for me. But if I had judged me on one of these shows, I wouldn’t have thought I’d have the career I was going to have… at all.”