LOS ANGELES - The makeshift interview room at the Dolby Theatre is a chair short, so Jennifer Lopez volunteers to squeeze onto a small couch with "the boys," fellow American Idol judges Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban.
"Look at this snapshot. Look at this," host Ryan Seacrest says, pointing to the trio.
"It's an example of the cooperation, can I just say?" Urban responds.
The two men appear to be only half-joking. The judges for Season 13 (Fox, Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT), gathering before the taping of Hollywood Week's Group Day, seem a united bunch, unlike last season's foursome, which featured an openly contentious relationship between Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj.
"You guys are having a great time together, but I also think you have an amazing respect for what this franchise is, for what it's done and the people who have come from it," says Seacrest, who has been with Idol since its first season.
Starting as a summer series in 2002, Idol grew into an audience giant, topping the TV ratings for nearly a decade, and becoming a cultural phenomenon that launched such stars as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.
The Idol-as-juggernaut years are over, with the show down 10 million viewers over the past two seasons. Other singing contests now compete for attention, including NBC's The Voice, which last spring finished ahead of the Fox competition among young adults and later won the Emmy for best reality competition series.
Still, Idol averaged a still-healthy 15 million viewers and ranked in the top five among viewers and young adults last year, impressive feats for a show in its second decade.
As an aging series that will face NBC's Olympics coverage in February, Idol likely will lose some viewers, as it has since Season 5, save for an uptick during Lopez's first year as a judge in 2011, says Brad Adgate of ad firm Horizon Media, who predicts "there will be some falloff, but not to the extent that it's (had) the last couple of years."
Much has changed since the disappointing Season 12, with new day-to-day producers, a new director and tweaks to the familiar hit format. Longtime judge Randy Jackson will become the in-house mentor.
"We've made a lot of changes that might seem small in themselves, but they add up to a much fresher picture overall," says Trish Kinane of FremantleMedia North America, who continues as an executive producer.
The most obvious difference is the judging panel, lauded by Kinane for "constructive, meaty, interesting commentary" and featuring singer and actress Lopez, a panelist from Seasons 10 and 11; Season 12 judge Urban, a country star; and former mentor Connick, a singer, pianist and composer.
Last season, "the chemistry wasn't there," Kinane says. "You want to feel comfortable watching Idol. I think that's what we've got this year. I think a family can watch the show happily together without any tension and with it being a positive, warm experience. The chemistry is here in spades."
The judges say they connected instantly. "In the first few years of the show, Paula (Abdul), Simon (Cowell), Randy (Jackson) and Ryan seemed like they were all having a great time," Urban says. "And I feel like what we've got is that same sense of fun that should have been there all along."
That doesn't mean they won't differ. "It happened yesterday," Connick says, remembering an unimpressive singer. "I had written a 'Yes' for this one particular person and Jennifer looked at me and ... went totally Bronx for a second. (She's) like, 'Have you lost your mind?' "
The three say their approach will be straightforward, but not harsh. "If I don't think (a performance is) good, I'm going to say, 'That was not good,' " says Connick, who provides meticulous musical analysis in the audition episodes. "You've got to be real with them."
The good singers won't simply be lavished with praise, either. "They've got intrinsic, God-given talent, but they've got all these bad habits," Urban says. "A lot of it has to do with people around them that are going, 'You sing great. You write great songs. You play great guitar.' They don't. (But) they might be able to if they just had some people saying, 'You're not there yet, but you can work on this.' "
This year's talent is plentiful and creative, say the judges, who advise keeping an eye on the teens.
The singers "are breaking genres and stereotypes and I think that's really exciting," Lopez says. "People just pick up on what they love and they become so individual and unique. It breaks down barriers and you can do whatever you want to do."