The question has been asked before, but never so loudly and intensely as now: Does American Idol still have what it takes to remain America’s most-watched show? When the decade-old Fox reality series returns in January, will it remain king of the hill on prime-time television – or will its recent ratings slide intensify?
Such ponderings have new prominence, of course, because of the departure from the show of its symbolic father — iconic judge Simon Cowell — after nine seasons.
The acerbic British music promoter widely is given more credit than any other single human being for the smash success that Idol became. Just for good measure, fellow but less-veteran judges Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres also left. A year ago, Paula Abdul also exited, though involuntarily.
So what is remaining Idol judge Randy Jackson left to work with? Well, new judges in Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.
And perhaps more important, the concept that made Idol so successful in the first place: the idea that anyone in America could go from zero to hero if they had a great voice, some stage presence and a little luck.
That’s why Fox has been returning to the fundamental notion behind Idol as it has begun to promote the 10th season of the show during other network presentations, such as the World Series and Glee. It's also a way to keep advertisers (such as Ford) satisfied that the Idol juggernaut isn't teetering as it turns 10.
Under the theme “American Idol: Welcome Home,” Idol-spawned superstars Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have been featured, as well as winners David Cook and Lee DeWyze, whose personal stories have inspired fans perhaps more than their post-Idol albums. (Update: as reader "nadia" rightly points out below, DeWyze's album was just released, so too early to make such an assessment.)
None of the changes ensure returning producer Nigel Lythgoe can hold on to the remaining fan base, much less recapture the glory period of a few years ago.
And there’s an “X” factor — literally. Cowell bolted Idol in large part to launch a US version of his hit competition show in the UK, The X-Factor. Sometime next year, Cowell is expected to stage an American invasion on a scale of what he did with Idol several years ago. He may even bring on Abdul as a fellow judge.
When Cowell, a born marketer and showman, next year looks at Idol with new eyes — as his competition, instead of his meal ticket — can it stand up to his withering gaze?