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‘American Idol’ makes huge power play, signs Minaj, Urban

By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — After weeks of speculation, Fox made it official: Pop star Nicki Minaj and country crooner Keith Urban will join Mariah Carey and Randy Jackson as “American Idol” judges.

The move came as “Idol” got ready to start auditions in New York on Sunday for Season 12, which will premiere in January. The field is crowded: Earlier this week, singing-show rivals “The X Factor” and “The Voice” opened to relatively soft ratings, with the former losing nearly one-third of its audience compared with last year.

“I am thrilled about this year’s judges’ panel,” Mike Darnell, president of Fox’s alternative entertainment division, said in a statement. “Nicki’s an unbelievably captivating international phenomenon who has made an indelible mark on rap and pop. And Keith is another great addition to ‘Idol’ — he’s one of the biggest stars in country music and I know that our fans and contestants will fall in love with him.”

With competition intensifying and ratings falling, “Idol” is attempting a major makeover. Former judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez announced this year that they would leave the No. 1-rated show after two seasons apiece.

“Idol” saw double-digit declines last season, partly because of competition from NBC’s “The Voice.” “Idol” producers now seem to be angling to match the dynamics of “The Voice,” with a diverse judging table stacked with hit-makers. It will be the first time four judges have sat at the “Idol” table since the 2010 edition, which was Simon Cowell’s last season on the show and marked the brief appearance of Ellen DeGeneres as a judge.

Negotiations for Minaj and Urban — the ninth and 10th judges to have worked on “Idol” — went down to the wire, with Fox unsure as of late Saturday whether both singers’ deals would be signed in enough time for the performers to sit for the first round of auditions Sunday.

Minaj, an eccentric, Trinidadian-born rapper and singer who has racked up two No. 1 albums in the last couple of years, is well known to the teenagers and young adults “Idol” producers covet as viewers. Urban, a multi-platinum country artist who was born in New Zealand, will occupy the same sort of role that Blake Shelton performs on “The Voice.” “Idol” has never had a judge with an expertise in country music even though show winners Carrie Underwood and Scotty McCreery have found great success in that genre.

Jackson nearly didn’t make the cut. Earlier stories reported that he would have his role reduced to mentor after producers flirted with hiring pop star Enrique Iglesias. But Jackson’s job was saved after the Iglesias deal fell through.

Carey’s hiring was announced to great fanfare this summer, reportedly for an annual paycheck of $18 million.

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