On Tuesday night (February 9), we find out what kind of chemistry — if any — talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres has with the rest of the "American Idol" judging panel as the comedian makes her debut as the fourth judge during the start of Hollywood Week.
In the early going, DeGeneres reportedly clashed at times with lead judge Simon Cowell, who is departing at the end of the current season, a move that has set off rampant speculation about who might fill his opinionated shoes next season.
DeGeneres has some pretty big sneakers to fill herself, as she steps in following the departure of beloved loopy ex-judge Paula Abdul, who quit the show last year after failing to reach a new contract settlement. The ninth season of "Idol" will be the first without Abdul's lovably loony and predictably supportive commentary. Fox is hoping the cuddly and quick-witted DeGeneres can make fans forget about Abdul's exit and boost slowly eroding ratings on what is still the #1 show in prime time.
"Ellen brings a huge fanbase and people will be curious to see how she does. But if she performs poorly, that is bad for the show's long-term health," Entertainment Weekly senior writer Michael Slezak told Reuters.
MTV's resident "Idol" expert Jim Cantiello couldn't agree more. "I am super excited to see it for several reasons," he said. "One, it's a new element to a show that's been on the air for nine seasons, and we heard rumors there might have been tension on the first day because Simon showed up late, so it's fun to watch that episode with that filter. Also, she's one of the most famous people out there, so anything she does warrants attention."
Like a lot of "Idol" followers, Cantiello said he was a bit nervous about the addition of DeGeneres to the expert panel following her poorly received guest stint on "So You Think You Can Dance" last summer, where detractors faulted her for making jokes, but not really commenting on the dancing. "That was really bad, and if she does that on 'Idol,' the show will die a horrible death this year," Cantiello said. "When the news first came out about her, people freaked out, but that's subsided, and once I saw the promos Fox cut, they did a really good job teasing it."
In particular, Cantiello pointed to the most recent teaser, which appeared to show the amiable DeGeneres putting her foot down and giving some tough love to a Hollywood contestant. "I'm really excited and I was anti-Ellen at first," he said. "So if I'm excited, I think other people should be too."
"Idol" has ruled the ratings for the past six years, easily besting every other show in prime time during its winter run, while churning out superstars like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and solid pop singers like Fantasia and Jordin Sparks. Part of the reason was the fire-and-ice repartee between Cowell and Abdul, which typically consisted of harsh words from the Brit and soothing platitudes from the former pop star/ choreographer. With the addition of professional songwriter Kara DioGuardi last year, who sits alongside longtime producer/musician Randy Jackson and music-industry veteran Cowell, the panel has plenty of cred.
And though DeGeneres doesn't have experience in the industry, former finalist Kimberly Caldwell thinks she could add that "it" factor Abdul brought to the show.
"I'm a massive Ellen fan," said Caldwell, who finished in seventh place in season two. "One of my dreams is to just be on 'The Ellen Show.' ... I think that she's gonna be really great, especially with Paula gone. There's not gonna be ... a little sensitive side. I think she's gonna give constructive criticism, which we don't see from other people."
Caldwell defended the show's resident crank, explaining that her experience in the music industry has taught her that Cowell is just keeping it real. "If you think he's mean, then you haven't been in the music industry, because he really is like a little cupcake compared to people I've dealt with, what most people deal with," she said.
With Cowell bowing out after the finale in May to focus on his other talent show, "The X Factor," the pressure is on for DeGeneres to pull her weight on the panel and perhaps emerge as the new go-to voice the audience loves to hate — or, as might be the case for her, loves to love.
"If Ellen works, it puts [producers] in a much better position when they replace Simon. The dynamic is the thing I am curious to watch. I think some people will miss Paula's 'camp mom' spirit," Brian Mansfield, who runs the USA Today Idol Chatter Blog, told Reuters.
And, if all else fails, there's always the possibility that shock jock Howard Stern could step into the Cowell seat next year and really shake things up.
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