With the Top 24 semifinalists ready to begin performing for viewer votes, American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said the competition's seventh-season is shaping up nicely.

"I don't want to name names because I've got to work with them all," Lythgoe told reporters during a Friday conference call when asked who he's been impressed by.  "But what I would say in watching them work this week... The boys seem to have the edge, but the girls have been fantastic this week.  The girls have really come up."

There are several changes to Idol in-store for fans once the semifinal broadcasts begin this week, however some were already evident during the recently concluded Hollywood Round, which saw a pool of 164 hopefuls from seven audition cities be narrowed down to the Top 24. 

One of the most notable differences from season's past during Idol 7's Hollywood Round was the absence of group performances.

"They were cut because we wanted to get the best singers that we could get," explained Lythgoe.  "We watched last year and realized that people were being cut on that day because they couldn't remember lyrics, and that is really not the reason to get rid of people as far as I'm concerned.  It's got to be their talent that lets them down."

Lythgoe added contestants aren't judged on group performances during the semifinals and finals, so it didn't really make sense to continue doing it in the HollyWood Round.

"It was always done for the contentious side of it -- to get the rouse, to make them extremely tired -- and see how they coped under the pressure," he said.  "This year, we just wanted to base it on talent, and I think the proof is going to be in this season."

The result was a "very strong" Hollywood Round, according to Lythgoe, which was aided by the fact they didn't "mess around" with group routines.

"We concentrated on their performances and giving them the second opportunity to sing," said Lythgoe, further explaining the Hollywood Round's format change.  "The nerves come into play during those first couple of days, and people just get cut willy-nilly.  So we said this season, give them a chance if their terrific [and] put them straight through to the last day [of the Hollywood Round].  If not, give them the opportunity of coming back and sing again."

Another change that was evident during the Hollywood Round that will continue into the competition is giving contestants the opportunity to play a musical instrument to accompany their vocal performances.

"What we always do on this program is give them their choice.  That's all we can do," said Lythgoe.  "Some of them simply can't play [instruments] anyway, so it's just allowing somebody to show the complete range of their talent.  [Australian Idol] did it last year, and really did well with it.  We did it in the Hollywood Week, some people crashed and burned and other people sort of came across okay... Where it works it works, and where it doesn't, it's outstandingly bad.  So it'll give something else, another little contentious side."

Twenty members of Idol 7's Top 24 group are 25-years-old or younger -- a marked difference from last year when half of the sixth season's 24 semifinalists were 25 or older.  In addition, one third of Idol 7's semifinalists are teenagers and five of them are 17 or younger.
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"In this competition, they have to still go to school.  It's really tough on them to do their schoolwork during the morning and then come onto the stage and then go back to schoolwork," said Lythgoe.  "Their parents are here with them as well, taking care of them.  I think it's really tough on 16- and 17-year-olds.  They're asked to work harder than anybody else.  At the same time, we've found that they actually step up to the plate all the time and are exceptionally good... I'm sure this year the kids will do very well."

Idol 7's 12 male semifinalists will perform in a special two-hour broadcast on Tuesday, February 19, after which the show's viewers will finally receive their own chance to cast votes for their seventh-season favorites.  Idol 7's 12 female semifinalists will follow with another two-hour performance show on Wednesday night.

For the first time, each round of American Idol's three-week semifinals will have a theme, with first week focusing on songs from the 1960s.

"They still have their own choice of song, but we've given them a genre that is a little more musical with songs that we know -- because asking America to vote on a performer they don't know with the possibility of a song they don't know -- we felt was not right, and there's some strange songs and strange choices being picked," said Lythgoe in explaining the semifinals music change, adding there's also a legal aspect to it.

"Then we've got to go out and clear [the songs] and try to sort all of that out.  We didn't want to take the risk of not being able to clear songs that were chosen and then swap the song at the last minute on what of the contestants, which we've had to do in the past.  So we said, 'Okay, these are the 50 songs you can choose from from the 60s."

Lythgoe also revealed there will only be four musical mentors during Idol 7's run, a stark contrast to the show's most recent installments when mentors were heavily featured on a weekly basis.

Despite the lack of mentors to fill time, Lythgoe discussed why producers made the previously announced broadcast change that will expand results shows to one-hour.

"We never felt comfortable with doing 21 minutes, which is the American half-hour [due to commercial breaks].  The American hour is something like 38 minutes," he said.  "Obviously, I wanted you to know the contestants an awful lot better this year.  So we're doing major packages on them."

In addition to packages on this season's contestants, Lythgoe said viewers will also be able to learn what some of their favorite Idol finalists from the past are currently doing.

"We're also doing a package on where are they now," he explained.  "So where is Kimberly Locke?  What's she doing?  Where is Dianna DeGarmo now?  What's she doing?  I want to make it much more about American Idol every season, and bring back people we have known and see what they're up to.  That's a major part of it this year."

Idol will also roll out a "brand new set" for live broadcasts once the Top 12 finalists are revealed on Thursday, March 6 at 8PM ET/PT.

"It's going to feel like spring cleaning," said Lythgoe.  "A breathe of fresh air is going to come in."