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Celebrity Gossip from Liz Smith

Variety Entertainment News Service

Stand back -- here comes another season of "American Idol." That's pretty much how Fox's Big Four rivals react this time of year as the "Idol" steamroller revs up for its January debut.

But this year, the competition is putting on more of a game face. CBS and ABC in particular are hoping to field credible counterprogramming (read: shows with ratings that won't hit historic lows) to the "Idol" juggernaut, and CW execs are bravely gambling that teen-bait "90210" won't wither in the Tuesday 8 p.m. shadow of "Idol." (If it does, they'll move it out of the way in a Beverly Hills minute.)

A more telling sign that "Idol" is growing slightly less invincible can be found in the changes that the show's producers are making for the show's eighth edition, which bows Jan. 13. There's a feeling among fans that the internationally honed format has become a little too familiar, and the casting of contenders has been only so-so for the past few outings. That was evident in last year's edition when viewership sagged (versus the '07 run) early on, though it picked up in the final weeks.

Only time and the voting decisions of viewers will tell if the contestant casting alchemy is clicking for "Idol" '09. But producers are counting on the show getting an injection of freshness (and big hair) from the addition of multihyphenate music maven Kara DioGuardi as the fourth judge.

"Wherever we can, we want to change things up a bit," "Idol" exec producer Ken Warwick said in a recent conference call. That includes changes behind the scenes, as Warwick's longtime "Idol" showrunner partner, Nigel Lythgoe, bowed out of the U.S. edition after last season.

In a nod to viewer complaints about underwhelming personalities in the "Idol" roster, producers have cut back on the number of audition segments in the early weeks. They've also rejiggered the schedule of elimination rounds, adding a wildcard round to allow more time for distinct characters to emerge before the field is winnowed to a final 12 contenders.

In past years, by the time the competition got down to the final eight, "We'd been living with these kids for weeks already. If any of them don't have fantastic characters, it got a bit boring," Warwick admitted.

No less a harsh critic than Simon Cowell agreed that last season's crop was less than stellar.

Last year, "I couldn't differentiate one from the other," he said of the finalists. "This year, there seems to be more personality. They're definitely standing up for themselves more, which I like, and they're different from people we've had before."

Certainly, a big draw at the outset of this season will be the curiosity factor surrounding DioGuardi, a songwriter who works in A&R for Warner Bros. Records and heads her own shingle, Arthouse Entertainment.

Will there be catfights between the new gal and Paula Abdul? Will she face an on-air hazing from the sharp-tongued Cowell? DioGuardi has some experience on the bench, having served as a judge on ABC's "Idol" knockoff "The One," which lasted all of two episodes in 2006.

On paper, DioGuardi would seem to be a good fit with "Idol's" relentlessly commercial brand. She's penned slick pop-rock tunes for "Idol" alums Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken and David Archuleta, as well as for such "Idol"-friendly popsters as Pink, Faith Hill, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Gwen Stefani and, yes, Celine Dion. (As of last week DioGuardi had 3,625 friends on her MySpace page.)

Cowell has paid DioGuardi the respect of deeming her "well qualified" to serve as an "Idol" judge. But it's clear producers are hoping sparks will fly on the panel. Cowell confirmed hints from Warwick that Abdul and DioGuardi (who once worked together as songwriters in the pre-"Idol" era) have been challenging the almighty Brit.

"What guy would like that? Come on. You've got two girls ganging up on you. One is hard enough; two is unbearable," Cowell said. "But they've both got personalities, they're both very forceful."

Fox execs like to call their enduring talent competish "our nightly Super Bowl," and for good reason. No other regularly skedded program comes close to drawing the 28.5 million viewers "Idol" averaged on its two nights last season. And this season, primetime's other old reliables have suffered declines even without "Idol."

Yet CBS is counting on its invigorated Tuesday drama sked to put up a good fight against "Idol." The network's 8 p.m. drama "NCIS" has defied primetime gravity this year, and its 9 p.m. companion "The Mentalist" is the fall season's only unqualified frosh success story.

ABC will bide its time against the Tuesday "Idol" with new docu-reality show "Homeland Security USA." ABC thinks it may have a decent slice of counterprogramming on its hands and has been promoting the series heavily during the holidays.

NBC hopes to hang tough on Tuesday with "The Biggest Loser," which has held up amid the general downturn in viewership for the network this season.

CW is sticking with "90210" at 8 p.m., but execs there have reason to be concerned. After a round of glowing headlines this fall -- thanks to the solid launch of "90210" and improved ratings for "Gossip Girl" -- CW has taken a hit as of late, finishing behind MyNetworkTV in December. The Dub's contingency plan is to move the show to Wednesdays at 9, where "90210" reruns are already set to air next month, and slide the repeats into the line of fire on Tuesday.

Competing on Wednesdays will be tougher all around now that the "Idol" results show has shifted to 8 p.m. instead of 9. CBS is sticking with its comedies "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Gary Unmarried."

ABC hasn't confirmed its plans, but it's expected to give the thankless job to "According to Jim" once again. NBC will play dead by burning off segments of the canceled "Knight Rider."

CW's got the horror anthology "13: Fear Is Real" set to roll in January, but the netlet's real fright could come later in the spring when its reality staple "America's Next Top Model" returns to the timeslot.

But as much as Fox's rivals feel the heat at this time of year, the pressure is equally strong in the "Idol" camp to live up to lofty expectations.

"When you get to the eighth edition of any series, you've got to expect the ratings to diminish slightly," says Warwick. "We are tweaking around, trying to make it a bit more interesting. Some things will work, some things won't. I expect our figures will probably drop a bit, but I'm not ashamed of that because I've got eight years of success behind me."

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.


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