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American Idol‘s new judging panel sits down together and — surprise! — a civil conversation breaks out.

“What did you think? We were going to come in with boxing gloves?” jokes Nicki Minaj, whose recorded tirade against fellow newcomer Mariah Carey has generated media heat as Season 12 of the Fox singing competition kicks off Wednesday with the New York auditions

But there’s no animosity as the judges — Carey, Minaj, country’s Keith Urban and Idol original Randy Jackson — gather in a crowded hotel meeting room to discuss the new season. As entourages look on, there is a little competitiveness between Carey and Minaj, but Minaj pays Carey a compliment, and the five-octave superstar chooses diplomacy when asked about the panel’s chemistry.

“It’s ever-evolving,” Carey says, drawing a wry laugh from Urban.

Besides new judges and a return to a four-arbiter panel, changes include:

— Dividing singers by gender earlier, in the Hollywood Round, which will whittle a field of 276 down to 40 semifinalists.

— Expanding the Las Vegas Round to two weeks and making it the first half of the semifinals. The judges will cut the field from 40 to 20, before viewers pick the final 10 in the second part of the semis.

— Starting the finals with 10 singers, rather than the 12 or 13 who have made the last cut in previous years. Judges’ wild-card picks are out.

— Reaching farther into the hinterlands for talent. An Idol bus visited small towns looking for singers, while friends and family members were able to nominate contestants who were then surprised with audition opportunities.

Until the singers appear, the judges are the focus, and Fox reality chief Mike Darnell says they’ve re-energized the show.

“It is a lively, entertaining, passionate, argumentative, incredible panel. … They’re more active than the judges were last year. There’s more arguments, more disagreements, just a lot more debate,” he says. “Nicki and Mariah certainly have had their moments, but all of the judges have had their moments. Keith’s had his moments with both girls, and even Randy, who has been there 11 years, got caught up in it.”

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Source: USA Today