Who will be the next Kelly Clarkson? Or Carrie Underwood? Or Scotty McCreery?

As usual, the question won't be answered until May, but much of the fun is in the journey as "American Idol" is determined to prove again. The hugely popular Fox singing competition starts its 11th season at 8 p.m. Wednesday with the last round's panel of judges -- Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler -- back intact, and Ryan Seacrest in his traditional role as host.

Cecile Frot-Coutaz, an "Idol" executive producer from the start, hints the latest round has "more variety than in prior years. We had good turnouts at the stadiums [for the auditions, footage of which always starts an "Idol" season], a lot of diversity in the talent with some very interesting younger talent and some big voices."

That should keep things fresh for the "Idol" judges during the weekly Wednesday and Thursday episodes, with Lopez and Tyler going into their sophomore stints. "It's almost like the kids this year have studied the show," Tyler says. "They know what to expect. The ones who are really good, they're the ones Randy and J. Lo and I give the toughest criticism to. We want them to get through."

Last season's contest came down to two country-flavored talents, Lauren Alaina and eventual winner McCreery. "At the very beginning," Frot-Coutaz says, "the show was clearly looking for a pop star. I think over the years, it has broadened in the kinds of contestants it's attracting and, therefore, in what it's looking for. Over the years, rockers have come up a little bit more; we've had [Chris] Daughtry, then last year, we had James Durbin."

Auditions for the 2012 edition of "Idol" were staged in St. Louis; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; Pittsburgh; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; Houston; and East Rutherford, N.J. That meant plenty of travel for Seacrest and the judges, but having been through the process once, Tyler believes he came back to it more prepared.

"Writing my own songs and going up onstage and being best friends with the guys in the band, it's a lot different than this," he notes. "I'm not going to lie: It was difficult last year, in the sense that I didn't know the game; I didn't know the rules. I'm getting it from the ground up. It wasn't rubbed into me for 10 years.

"I'm seeing it as kids coming in and wanting something bad, but they've got to be that special something. The critiquing is easier for me this year. I want to be honest, but sometimes on television, they're brutally honest for television's sake. That's a little hard for me to be, so as J. Lo has said, you nurture, and they come out even better in the next round. They don't feel put down; they feel massaged with encouragement. And that's worked for us."

"Idol" will get an extra boost from an additional airing next Sunday, immediately after the Fox telecast of football's NFC Championship game. "It's just a normal audition hour," Frot-Coutaz explains. "We're just trying to stay focused on the show's strengths, such as the warmth and the intimacy, especially in the audition phase."

What keeps viewers coming back to "American Idol" is what keeps Frot-Coutaz pleased to be one of its makers. "I just love the discovery, the unpredictability," she says. "You never know who's going to walk in through the door, and you just want to be wowed."

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