Life after Cowell?

When American Idol returns for its 10th season on Friday, it will have two fresh (and very famous) faces at the judges' table.

And it will also feature a renewed focus on the warbling would-be stars who are supposed to be the singing smash's reason for existence in the first place.

Ah, but something will be missing.

Oh, right - the sassy guy with the flattop and tight T-shirts.

The big suspense surrounding the new Idol isn't whether Steven Tyler will be introduced as Liv Tyler's father or Jennifer Lopez will salvage her fading career.

The Aerosmith frontman and Bronx-born J-Lo were picked as new judges amid a seemingly endless carnival of speculation last summer.

Instead, the real story centres on whether the show will survive the departure of Simon Cowell, the caustic lead judge who rode his merciless putdowns of auditioners to high-powered stardom.

The stakes are incredibly high.

Idol is the No 1 series on television and has propelled the Fox network to repeated victories in the crucial demographic of adults ages 18 to 49, according to the Nielsen Co.

The singing contest has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for Fox and made it nearly impossible for rival networks ABC and NBC to compete.

CBS, the most-watched network in the US, has fared much better but has nevertheless been held to a counterprogramming strategy, batting back the Idol threat with franchise crime series such as Criminal Minds and NCIS, which skew heavily toward older viewers.

And at a time when broadcasting was supposed to be slumping off into irrelevance, Idol proved that 30 million viewers will still crowd around a network show, provided it's the right network show.

At least for the record, Fox executives insist there's little cause for concern.

Idol - produced by Fremantle Media and 19 Entertainment - just needs a few tweaks and, in any event, a somewhat less big Idol is still huge.

"For any show in its 10th season to be holding up as well as Idol is a testament to the show," Fox's research and scheduling guru Preston Beckman said.

"It's been about 60% higher than the next highest-rated show, so worst-case scenario, it'll still be the biggest show on television."

Idol indeed has a long way to fall before it could be considered in trouble.

It has been the No 1 programme for a record six straight years - longer than any show, scripted or otherwise.

But there is a sense that Fox is on the defensive, that the network must stop more air from escaping the Idol balloon.

Last year's finale drew 24.2 million US viewers - still an enormous figure, but Idol's worst season closer since its first back in 2002.

Critics griped about the perceived blandness of the contestants, including runner-up Crystal Bowersox and the self-effacing winner Lee DeWyze.

Even the show's once formidable infrastructure seemed out of whack.

Ellen DeGeneres, who was hired to replace Paula Abdul on the judges' table, proved an awkward fit.

Trying to accommodate reactions from a quartet of judges - actually the same number as on Pop Idol, the show's British predecessor - threw off the pacing and often made the programme run long.

Cowell exited after last season to prepare his own talent contest, The X Factor.

"In the past couple years, it was like so much oxygen seemed to be consumed by everything going on the judges' panel that the poor kids hardly had a chance to introduce themselves,"said Richard Rushfield, the author of the forthcoming book American Idol: The Untold Story.

Perhaps as a result, the last few crops of Idol singers haven't broken through to mainstream success the way earlier performers did, such as season one's Kelly Clarkson, season four's Carrie Underwood and season five's Chris Daughtry (who did not win or make the finals of the contest).

"The biggest thing that Idol needs to do this year," Rushfield said, "is produce a major recording star.

"They haven't done that in a lot of years, and it's sort of the premise of the show."

Thus, what those close to the show promise will be a return to roots.

Producer Nigel Lythgoe, who left Idol in 2008 after reportedly tangling with Cowell, has come back to oversee the show.

Meanwhile, the producers are hoping to beef up Idol's musical credibility with the addition of Jimmy Iovine, a leading record producer and music-label executive who will serve as a permanent mentor to the contestants.

"He's going to fill some of that Simon void, of being the industry veteran who's not going to pull any punches," Beckman said.

"Even though he's not going to be a judge, he's going to have an impact throughout the season on the kids."

The very fact that Fox is talking about a "Simon void" suggests how much Idol must prove this season.

Whether Tyler, J-Lo & Co are up to the task remains to be seen.

"He was the master of brutal honesty, but he really knew the business," industry analyst Shari Anne Brill said of Cowell.

"If the replacements and the new formatting of the show [don't] get people from the beginning, it's going to hurt."

But a few weeks can make a huge difference in the life of a TV show.

When Idol premiered during the summer of 2002, few viewers or media outlets paid it much attention.

And practically no-one had ever heard of Simon Cowell.

• The 10th season of American Idol premieres at 7.30pm Friday on TV2.

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter