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New upbeat 'American Idol' might be arriving at perfect time

During an ABC press conference in Pasadena, Calif., two months ago for the new version of "American Idol," judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan couldn't name any of the final three winners of the singing competition.

Ryan Seacrest, who was the host of the Fox version that ended its 15-year run in April of 2016 and returns as the host for the ABC version, didn't volunteer the name of a recent winner, either.

"Don't put me on the spot," he cracked.

The three new judges will start the attempt to make "American Idol" great again starting at 8 p.m. Sunday on WKBW-TV, followed by a second episode at 8 p.m. Monday.

Judging by the preview of the two-hour premiere featuring a self-described awkward female teenager, an overweight country boy, a formerly homeless man who lived in a tent and a teenage crooner who all illustrate you can't tell a book by its cover, the new judges could form a trio to sing Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

You won't be hearing any Simon Cowell snark from the judges, who often softly let down the contestants they don't send to Hollywood by advising them they can try again when they find their identity or voice.

Perry is the most playful of the trio, giving a 19-year-old boy a surprise kiss that he claims is his first ever and later dancing with a teenage boy.

Richie and Bryan frequently flash knowing smiles as they instantly realize they have found someone who can really sing.

The contestants come with stories about overcoming something in their lives or memories of growing up just knowing that they would one day land on "American Idol."

In these polarizing times, "Idol" just may have returned at the right moment to reestablish itself and make Fox regret its decision to let it go almost two years ago.

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In the upbeat January interview, the new judges downplayed any suggestions one would play the bad cop like Cowell did.

"I’m blunt, but I can’t be mean because I’m a woman," said Perry to laughter.

"There is only one Simon Cowell," added showrunner Trish Kinane. "And he was 15 years ago, and he’s doing a slightly different version of Simon Cowell on 'America's Got Talent' at the moment, but we weren’t looking, 'Hey, let’s get a Simon Cowell.'”

"We wanted judges with credibility, who knew what they were talking about, were huge successes in their own right, who were articulate and who generally cared about the contestants. And that’s the difference."

Richie added it isn't easy to be a tough guy when a contestant says he is homeless before blowing them away with their voices.

"And I’m not saying I’m having you come on the show because you are homeless and I feel sorry for you," said Richie. "That kid is incredible and is the hope of his entire family. Now, that story is compelling."

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The premiere doesn't spend much time on people who can't sing, although there are some odd performances by people just satisfied to get their few minutes of fame on TV.

Kinane noted that near the end of the original "Idol" run the really bad performers were minimized because it no longer felt right to put "borderline, unstable people up and laugh at them."

"But that’s not to say we don’t want humor in 'Idol,'" she added. "Humor is a very important part of 'Idol.' So if someone is eccentric, that’s slightly different, or if they’ve got a huge rock voice, which is something you wouldn’t normally hear, we’ll put that up, and we want that fun… So we want the humor, but we don’t want the exploitation."

Richie hopes to find an artist with "instant identity" who is more memorable than the last three "Idols" he and the other judges couldn’t name.

The bigger question is why the three judges would want to stake their reputations on the new version of "Idol."

Richie said he's frequently been offered a chance to make videos to explain songwriting, performance, dealing with the press and dealing with the pressure of the business.

"And then I thought about it for a moment and I said, 'How many people are actually going to read it?'" said Richie. "And then I thought about 'Idol,' and I got the call, thank God. And the thought for a moment was, 'Nah.' And then I realized, 'Reaching people.' The beautiful part about this was I love the judging, the judges. We’re artists, and we know exactly how to critique talent.

"So all the things that I was going to put in my video and my CD and my master class I’m actually going to be able to tell the the students... in person. I consider myself the instructor basically."

"It’s a real 'pay-it forward' moment," said Perry, who added the timing for her was right.

"'American Idol' and I have always been circling each other, and it just hasn’t been the right timing," said Perry. "Now after 10 years and a lot of, you know, aging and learning and providence, I can take all that information and really mentor and give constructive criticism, because that’s really what we do. No one is here to say … something that is negative. We’re here to really find a star and, if someone isn’t a star, delicately help repurpose them on the path that’s going to be good for them."

Bryan has the country attitude about his "Idol" participation after turning down previous TV opportunities to focus on touring. But he jumped at the chance of doing "Idol."

"It was never a moment’s thought for me, because I get inspired," said Bryan. "I judge and I watch this like a fan of music…  I’m in there on the emotional ride with these kids. When they start singing and they are moving me emotionally, I get wrapped up in the moment. I get wrapped up in the pageantry and the dreams coming true."

"It’s about finding an actual 'Idol,' making that good old American dream come to life once again that we all can be inspired by," said Perry. "And it’s just it’s a beautiful story. We need those beautiful stories right now to help lift us up, inspire us, and believe in ourselves again."

Perry added that seeing the contestants' "raw dreams, their raw ambition, their hope" has re-inspired her,

"'Oh, my gosh, I was there 10 years ago,'" said Perry. "I had two cars repossessed. I had three labels drop me. I was couch-surfing. I was eating Trader Joe’s frozen chicken nuggets every day of the week. I know exactly where you are. And we have this ability to give them this incredible journey. That’s what 'American Idol' is."

An "Idol" winner also has a marketing advantage in these tough times for musical artists.

"I think that, like, these days, it’s so hard to stand out," said Perry. "You have to, like, light yourself on fire on Instagram while singing."

You could say the same thing about all the TV shows premiering in March.

"American Idol" has one big advantage: Name recognition.

Starting Sunday, we'll find out if ABC is dreaming to think it can be great TV again.

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