Can J.Lo and Will.i.Am Save American Idol? Not Unless the Show Follows These 4 Simple Rules!

American Idol Season 13 JudgesAmerican Idol has been headed straight for an iceberg the last couple of seasons — a secret to no one except, perhaps, key executives at Fox and Fremantle Media.

Yet their recent chatter about changes to the show’s upcoming (and pivotal) Season 13 — which has been focused almost entirely on a rebooted judges’ panel, and not a rebooted outlook on what a judges’ panel should actually do — has me concerned that they’re merely slapping a fresh coat of paint on the luxury cruiseliner of reality competition shows. And really, what’s the point of that if the destination continues to be the bottom of the ocean floor?

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Fox president Kevin Reilly told reporters last week at the Television Critics Assoc. summer press tour in Beverly Hills that Keith Urban will be the only returning judge from Season 12 — an idea that makes sense for continuity and the ability to recognize contestants who just missed making the semifinals last year. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez — who sat on the panel in Seasons 10 and 11 — is in talks for a return engagement, too, added Reilly. Other published reports say the network is leaning toward Will.i.Am, who proved an almost entirely worthless guest mentor in Seasons 10 and 11, to round out the panel.

As someone who’s been eating, breathing and writing about Idol since Carrie Underwood was just an unknown Oklahoma farm girl with a dream, here’s my completely unsolicited four-step plan on how incoming executive producer Per Blankens should be conducting TV’s most buzzed-about job search.

IT’S NOT THE SIZE OF THE STARS, IT’S THE USEFULNESS OF THEIR FEEDBACK | There aren’t many names more bold-faced than Mariah Carey or Britney Spears, but that didn’t stop those ladies from being unmitigated failures during their respective runs on Idol and The X Factor. And as much as it pains me to say this, it doesn’t ultimately matter if it’s Jennifer Lopez or Jennifer Hudson, Will.I.Am or Adam Lambert sipping from those Coke cups come January 2014. (OK, OK, Adam would be infinitely more appealing than that foolio from the Black Eyed Peas, but you catch my drift…) What Blankens really needs to do is clearly and unflinchingly define the role of the judges — and make sure that whoever he hires is willing and able to carry out said job description (or be summarily dismissed/replaced by Crystal the Monkey).

HONESTY, IT’S SUCH A LONELY WORD… | Once upon a time, in the early rounds of Season 10, J.Lo was actually (forgive me for saying this) a solid judge of talent, offering specific, actionable and seemingly honest feedback to Pia Toscano, Stefano Langone and others. But as the weeks rolled on, her critiques became increasingly vague, she praised producer pets like Jacob Lusk even after his most heinous vocal crimes and her mission shifted to hurling eye daggers at Haley Reinhart and pushing for the Scotty-vs-Lauren country-kids showdown that had been the producers’ agenda from Day One. Still, as much as I can make jokes that J.Lo’s Season 13 prep work looks like this, I can’t pretend that she wouldn’t be a step up from Mariah, Nicki Minaj or the old barnacle Randy Jackson.

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Nevertheless, what I’m dying to hear from Reilly, Blankens or anyone associated with Idol, is a quote like this: “We’re hiring A-list talent for the panel, and we’re absolutely demanding that as part of the job, they pay strict attention to the performances every week, keep open minds, and speak directly from the gut. We promise to have absolutely no agenda about who wins Season 13 — and we’ve got absolutely no desire to influence what comes out of our judges’ mouths. I mean, why pay them the big bucks just to suppress their opinions and have them read off a pre-written script?” I know, I know, that sounds about as likely as Dads being the next Emmy winner for Best Comedy Series, but is there any real reason why this can’t or shouldn’t happen?

NOBODY WANTS TO WATCH THE VOICE FOUR DAYS PER WEEK | Even the most hardened cynics can’t help but be charmed by the Blake-Adam bromance on NBC’s rival singing competition, or the way those good ol’ boys embraced newbie counterparts Usher and Shakira during its most recent installment. Still, The Voice‘s panel is comprised of coaches, and Idol‘s is made up of judges — a critical difference that should never be lost on Blankens & Co.

Lest we forget, Idol‘s trump card — and one that The Voice and The X Factor have yet to play — is its ability to produce legitimate chart-toppers, and I can’t help but think that Idol‘s relatively tougher feedback — its trial-by-fire, not-everyone-gets-a-gold star attitude — contributes to its contestants’ post-show success.

So while The Voice might be the current critical and demo darling, turning into its pale imitation would be a terrible mistake for The House That Kelly Clarkson Built.

THE JUDGES SHOULD HELP THE SHOW MORE THAN THE SHOW SHOULD HELP THE JUDGES | First of all, if J.Lo or Will.i.Am want to promote a new single on the show, they should be forced to sing live — or not at all. Secondly, the Fox and Fremantle folks need to have a zero-tolerance policy for the kind of icky in-fighting that became a hallmark of Nicki and Mariah’s Season 12 relationship — and a major distraction to the competition. And finally, while the judges should always attempt to be entertaning, they should be instructed to use their humor, charm and outrageousness in the context of the competition. At the end of the day, Idol must be about finding the next Kelly, Carrie or Candice, not boosting the profiles of its judges’ latest entertainment projects. File that under: #Vow.

What do you think of a J.Lo-Will.i.Am-Keith Urban panel? What rules do you want to see the show’s producers follow in their hiring practices? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol news and commentary, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!