The holidays may have ended several weeks ago, but for millions of people the greatest gift of all -- the sixth season of Fox's American Idol -- remains unopened.  The wait will end with tonight's season premiere, and despite using the same familiar format that has made the show a ratings mega-hit, there are some twists in store for Idol's sixth installment.

In December, producers said the series would feature a big event midway through the season, describing it as something that "will blow America away." 

The big event may be the return of several former Idol contestants, who could be called back to perform the top songs chosen from a national songwriting competition being held to determine what tune the sixth season's finalists will sing in May.

"I would love to do two or three shows with past Idol contestants singing the songs, and then have America judge the songs," executive producer Nygil Lythgoe recently told Entertainment Weekly. "But that is not confirmed with Fox yet."

Then again, the big event could take place in the semifinal round, as US Weekly recently reported contestants may be grouped to perform songs from acts like the Bee Gees, Beastie Boys and Supremes, then be critiqued and voted off as an ensemble.  And of course, who knows which superstars will collaborate with Idol 6 finalists to begin with.

"There will be unconventional partnerships,"  Idol executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz told US.  "This is a show that has that 'holy cow' factor."

Idol executive producer Ken Warwick told USA Today in yesterday's issue that something is being planned when the competition is down to the final six singers.  "We're going to have a big special, with lots of stars," Warwick told USA Today.  "It might be an extra day [during that week]."

While celebrity guests have yet to be officially announced, judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson will all be back with host Ryan Seacrest.  All four have continuously been dishing about the hit series latest installment (as well as non-Idol related matters) during Idol's recent offseason, including who they saw as early favorites coming out of "the good, the bad, and the ugly" open auditions held from New York to California and everywhere in between.

"These are the savviest contestants we've ever seen. There's aggression, intensity, a bit of every man or woman for himself or herself," Seacrest told Entertainment Weekly.  "They don't care about making friends. They want to make money."

Another topic that's come-up quite a bit is the presence of celebrity judges.  After seeing celebrity judges in a diminished role during the fourth season and completely left out of last season, they will be back, with Jewel (Minneapolis), songwriter Carole Bayer Sager (Los Angeles) and Olivia Newton-John (New York) announced to appear as guest judges during the auditions.

With a slew of new off-air promotional partners, Idol 6 will premiere tomorrow night with a special two-hour debut featuring coverage of the competition's Minneapolis auditions, which will be followed by another two-hour episode on Wednesday night covering the Seattle tryouts.  Five more Tuesday and Wednesday broadcasts covering the show's sixth season tryouts in Memphis, New York City, Birmingham, San Antonio and Los Angeles will follow, concluding with a "Rest of the Best" auditions broadcast on February 7.

Once the broadcasts of the regional tryouts are over, coverage of American Idol 6's Hollywood round will begin airing on Tuesday, February 13 at 8PM ET/PT, with the season's top 24 semifinalists -- 12 men and 12 women -- scheduled to be announced the following night.  After the semifinalists are announced, the show's weekly performances and live eliminations will start, resulting in a three-week thrice-weekly Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursdaybroadcast schedule -- because Fox needs all the Idol it can get.  
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The twelve male semi-finalists will perform on Tuesday, February 20, followed by the twelve female semi-finalists on Wednesday, February 21, after which an hour-long live results show broadcast on Thursday, February 22 at 8PM ET/PT will send the two male and female singers who received the fewest votes home. The next two weeks will continue the same thrice-weekly format, ending with a live one-hour results show broadcast on Thursday, March 8 at 8PM ET/PT that will reveal the season's Top 12 finalists.

Warwick recently told USA Today that as the season whittles through its Top 12 finalists, a Beatles-themed episode may be in the works.  He said that while a few Beatles songs have appeared on Idol in the past, the show has never had access to enough for a themed week.  With permission from Sony, Beatles songs on Idol sound like a go.  Ideally, he said the week's mentor would either be Paul McCartney or Beatles producer George Martin, but that has not yet been confirmed.

"Everyone wants Paul McCartney, and there's a chance this year. It would be fantastic to do the Beatles songbook," Cowell told Entertainment Weekly.

Once the finals begin, American Idol will resume the same broadcast schedule as in previous years, with the series' performance shows airing Tuesdays at 8PM ET/PT and its results shows airing Wednesdays at 9PM ET/PT.  Not wanting to do battle with Idol and its legion of fans, ABC has already moved both Lost and the fourth season of Dancing with the Stars to different time slots.