EW YORK — It’s a kinder "American Idol" without Simon Cowell.
Television’s top show returned Wednesday with a makeover for its 10th season on Fox. Cowell, everyone’s favorite villain, is gone as a judge. So are Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres, replaced with the star power of Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. Original judge Randy Jackson remains.
However, initial ratings show interest is down in "American Idol" and its new format. The Nielsen Co. says 26.2 million people saw the two-hour season premiere Wednesday night of television’s most popular show.
That’s down 13 percent from the 29.9 million people who saw last year’s season debut. Nielsen said Thursday it was an even steeper ratings drop of 18 percent among the youthful audience the Fox network desires.
The first, two-hour episode accentuated the positive. Past audition shows have seemed a procession of train wrecks, narrated by Cowell’s biting putdowns. But on Wednesday, the first three contestants shown all made it through to Hollywood.
And the New Jersey auditions ended with two emotional stories: the daughter of a cancer survivor from Staten Island and a boy from the Bronx who kept to his dreams despite time spent living with his family in a homeless shelter. Both are only 16, and both were given go-aheads by the judges.
J.Lo in particular had a difficult time becoming J.No. She seemed in agony the first time she was shown rejecting a contestant.
"Oh, my God, I hate this!" she complained. "Why did I sign up for this? I want to go home."
She got up to hug a contestant who was crying upon meeting her.
When the theatrical Ashley Sullivan, of Springfield, Mass., auditioned, Jackson voted no. But when the tears started flowing, Lopez and Tyler overlooked their reservations to keep her in the competition.
"It’s our 10th season, and everything feels brand new," host Ryan Seacrest said, adding that it was "the most fun we’ve ever had."
It’s all a gamble for "American Idol," no longer as dominant in the pop firmament as it once was. Last season’s finale was seen by 24 million people, down 5 million from the big night the season before.
The show’s offseason turmoil was dismissed in a two-minute review at the show’s beginning.
"Forget what you think you know," the show proclaimed, "because the best is yet to come."
And the show quickly signaled what producers have been saying, that they want more emphasis on the contestants’ stories.
"This isn’t our story," Seacrest said. "It’s yours."
Tyler easily played the part of the rakish rock star, taking quick notice of the appearance of several female singers and being bleeped for off-color remarks twice in the first six minutes.
"Just the right amount (of leg) shows," the 62-year-old rocker said, looking at the dress of an energetic 16-year-old contestant from North Carolina.