Despite Nigel Lythgoe's departing desire that American Idol not implement too many tweaks in his absence, the Fox mega-hit will feature several substantial changes when the curtains go up on the show's eighth season.

Idol's most significant eighth-season change will be noticeable right from the beginning as songwriter Kara DioGuardi joins Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul on the show's regular judging panel.

While DioGuardi claims to have added some "girl power" to the judges table, she's already decided to side with Cowell in stating the eight season's crop of male contestants are stronger than the females.

"Looking at all the contestants as a whole I felt that the males were the strongest," DioGuardi told reporters during a media conference call last week. "That being said, there are one or two females that I'm excited about as well and I'm really just waiting for the show to roll out and for the next phase to kind of see who is going to end up on top."

Idol enthusiasts will also be eager for the next phase of the competition to commence because format tweaks will run rampant during the early stages.

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Once the eight-season auditions are in the books, coverage of the Hollywood Round will air over the course of four episodes -- two more than have been featured in recent seasons -- allowing the hopefuls to receive more screen time to impress the viewers who will eventually be voting.

Viewers will have more choices too, as Idol's eighth season will be the first season to feature 36 semifinalists. However viewers won't get to decide all of the season's finalists as Idol's eighth season will also include the return of a "Wild Card" semifinals round that will allow the show's judges to determine the final three members of the season's Top 12 finalists.

"I think the wild card is a good idea," Cowell told reporters during a December conference call.  "I wasn't crazy about the process we went through the last couple of years where we were given a small group of contestants who you actually got bored with once you hit about show five of the live shows.  This way this is a bit more jeopardy and hopefully a bit more fun in the middle stages."

The format tweak -- which has not been used since the 2004 third season -- also means that the eighth-season's Top 12 won't necessarily feature an even number of male and female finalists.

"We wanted to change things up a little bit, and we felt that in doing the show with 12 [male semifinalists] and 12 [female semifinalists] that by the time we got down to the [season's] final eight [finalists] we'd been living with these kids for like eight weeks already and if any of them didn't have fantastic characters it got a bit boring," Idol executive producer Ken Warwick told reporters during a December press conference. 

Katrina Darrell, a 20-year-old model and clothing designer from Chino Hills, CA, auditions during American Idol's eighth season premiere (Photo credit Michael Becker/FOX)
Once the Wild Card round is in the books, Idol's eighth-season Top 12 will take the stage for the first time on March 10 -- with home viewers ousting the first finalist as results are revealed the next night.
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The competition will then continue to march towards crowning a champ -- minus the fund-raising Idol Gives Back event, which has been scrapped for the show's eighth season. 

"This is a difficult financial time for everyone globally, so I think the decision made was 'look, let's hold it over until next year and do it then,'"Warwick previously told reporters in explaining the fund-raiser's absence.

Warwick will also be busy dealing with a behind-the-scenes absence for the show's eighth season, as Lythgoe confirmed last summer that he would be stepping down as Idol's executive producer after previously serving in that role for all of the show's first seven seasons.

"It is one of those things that's a love of your life that you need to give up, purely and simply because I have to move on and the program has to move on as well," said Lythgoe during an August broadcast of Ryan Seacrest's KIIS-FM radio show.  "I hope they don't tweak it too much because it's a very simple format and that's the beauty of it."

Viewers will ultimately determine whether or not the tweaks work, and they'll be able to begin forming their opinion when the eighth season premieres tonight at 8PM ET/PT on Fox.

(Photo credit Michael Becker/FOX)