In stark contrast to the furious "American Idol" news stream of the past several days, the show's Television Critics Association press conference on Monday came and went with nary a noteworthy announcement.
That's probably OK with Fox and "Idol," seeing that, after nine seasons, the hit reality show has arguably never been more vulnerable:
Ratings are down from their 2006 high, Simon Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres have abandoned their judges' chairs, and rumors are swirling that Kara DioGuardi is heading for the exit too — all after what many fans see as the show's most underwhelming season in the show's history.
As "Idol" stumbles amid cast controversy and declining ratings, Cowell is gearing up to bring "The X Factor," his hit U.K. singing competition, to U.S. televisions in September 2011. Could this be the season when viewers begin to bid goodbye to "Idol" and start migrating to "X Factor"? Or can the two shows exist together on Fox?
" 'Idol' still has the ability to capture the public's imagination," said MJ Santilli, who runs MJ's Big Blog, a popular "Idol" blog. "Simon Cowell's departure will be a big loss, but I firmly believe that the show is bigger than any one contestant, or any of the judges — including Simon."
And at least at the outset, "Idol" might well experience a ratings bump as viewers tune in to check out the new lineup of judges. The true test will come as the season pushes forward and the contestants' talent level becomes clear. No matter who is behind the judges' table, viewers will tune out if they don't care about the people being judged. And, to go a step further, many reality-show observers maintain that such shows are mostly about the contestants, not the judges.
"The judges provide the anchor for viewers to base their opinions on, but a lot of the buzz [comes from] contestants on the show, sometimes in their interaction with the judges," said Rickey Yaneza, editor of the "Idol" fan blog Rickey.org.
Yet the flurry of "Idol" personnel moves makes clear that producers believe viewers do tune in, at least in part, for the judges and, further, that the show is in desperate need of a makeover. What will happen, though, if the changes don't go over well with the audience? Will "Idol" viewers migrate to "X Factor"? Launching a new reality franchise is no easy task, but Cowell certainly has the experience on both sides of the pond.
"Simon has fantastic instincts," Santilli said. "Look what he's done with 'America's Got Talent.' It gets very healthy ratings for a summer show. The show is tacky and over-the-top, but also highly entertaining — even if only in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. The combination of drama, spectacle and talent 'X Factor' will offer should be a winning combination."
Whether the audience will stay tuned in after the "X Factor" honeymoon phase comes to a close is another question. The key here will be to make a big pop-culture splash, a talent discovery akin to a Leona Lewis from the British version of "X Factor" or a Susan Boyle from "Britain's Got Talent."
"If 'X Factor' produces a big star its first season, and 'Idol'
continues to launch artists with middling success, Cowell's show could steal some 'Idol' thunder," Santilli said.
Of course, saying you're going to find the next SuBo and actually finding her are two very different things. The pressure will be on Cowell, just as it will be on "Idol" as it moves into a rejiggered 10th season. At the end of the day, though, it might not matter at all.
"There is a big possibility that viewers will experience reality singing-show fatigue and both shows will never reach the highs that 'American Idol' once had a few years ago," Yaneza said.
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