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A Kinder, Gentler Idol

The morbid fascination that has long made the first few weeks of American Idol so compelling is, perhaps unfortunately, a thing of the past. It's just one of a spate of changes in store for Idol, which comes back to Fox tonight for its eighth season. The show will introduce a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, more semifinalists, and a wild card round giving some contestants a second chance. The number of audition episodes will be decreased from four to three. Also down: the number of seemingly certifiable contestants. “They couldn’t just come in a costume and guarantee that they were going to get on TV, not anymore,” Ken Warwick, an executive producer, said last month. Of course, that doesn't mean there's no reason to watch early on. “There are places that we went to—you know, to Puerto Rico—and the majority of them weren’t very good at all,” making some footage of uncomfortable auditions unavoidable, Warwick said.