Sort of like a sitcom that adds an adorable little kid or wisecracking, busty neighbor late in its run to goose slipping ratings, "American Idol" is looking to a trio of new faces to keep the ship sailing on its upcoming 12th season.
Despite 10 straight seasons as the #1 show on TV, ratings have been down 25 percent the past two years. And even with Phillip Phillips' success last season — the first time the series has produced a breakout male pop star in years — "Idol" was bested by the NFL in 2012 and knocked off its #1 ratings perch as the season 11 finale drew the smallest audience to date.
"I think people will be pleasantly surprised by Nicki. She's really great on the panel," said Hollywood Reporter music editor Shirley Halperin of the rap star. "She's exactly what we want from an 'Idol' judge: She doesn't mince words, she's very blunt and honest, and she's supportive but not coddling. She's going to be a really good addition in term of pacing and comments."
Up until now, the only thing we've heard about Minaj's contributions to the "Idol" franchise is the bad blood between her and Carey. But with the two newbies seemingly burying the hatchet (it remains to be seen if it winds up in one of their backs), Halperin said Minaj could bring much more heat than another major name that fizzled on a rival show.
"She's not like Britney Spears," she said of the pop icon who just quit "X Factor" after one season.
Peace or no peace, Halperin said based on what she's seen, there's a potential for another major blow-up between the dueling divas, which she suspects "Idol" producers are torn about. "On the one hand, they love the publicity and potential for a ratings bump," she said. "But it's also embarrassing to them as people. That uneasy balance makes for good television."
Perhaps aware that the talent well could be running dry after a decade of scouring big cities for undiscovered gems (not to mention the increased competition from "The Voice" and "X Factor"), "Idol" is introducing two new wrinkles this season. The Small Town Audition Bus Tour hit 10 more off-the-radar burgs in states like Montana and Idaho, and this year, reluctant singers could be nominated for the show by their friends and loved ones, leading to what has been described as hidden-camera-style "audition interventions" that could goose the early rounds.
The finalists will be pared down to the top 10 again this year with no wild cards, and singers will be broken up by gender during Hollywood and Las Vegas weeks.
Early reports have Minaj's kinetic energy lighting up the screen in sharp contrast to Carey's bored, haughty $18 million persona and Urban's sparkly eyed handsome charm.
But Kyle Anderson, staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, wasn't so sure Minaj has the magic bullet to cure what ails "Idol."
"I cannot imagine that audience putting up with Nicki Minaj for very long," he said. "I don't think shakeups behind the judges' table have ever really helped."
Yes, there may be an initial bump due to the curiosity factor, but Anderson doubted "Idol" will draw new viewers this far into its run.
Even if producers are banking on the Mariah/Nicki rivalry bringing back a hint of Carey's more chaotic, pre-motherhood days, Anderson is admittedly nostalgic for the crazy salad days of former judge Paula Abdul.
"At her most insane, she was so much more entertaining than anything they've contrived to do since," he said. "They tried to do it with Steven Tyler and the 'what is this crazy guy going to say now?' thing. But when's the last time [the show] produced anyone that people gave a sh-- about? There's no way that that group will christen someone like Phillip Phillips."
"Idol" is unlikely to ever reach its season-five high point of 36.4 million viewers. But to put it in perspective, more than a decade in, its 19.8 million Wednesday night viewers for the 2011-12 season bested the 18.2 million for "Dancing With the Stars" performance shows and the 15.7 million viewers who tuned in for "The Voice." They were also well ahead of another greying franchise, fourth-rated reality show "Survivor," which posted 12.7 million per week, as well as every scripted program in prime time.
Maybe you can't go home again, but Halperin was confident the show — which goes live March 5 — will be much more interesting than it has been over the past two seasons thanks to Minaj and Urban.
"I think Phillip Phillips' success will help ['Idol'] regain its spark and they will shove that in our face at every opportunity," she said. "At this point, that's the one carrot they can dangle that no other singing competition has."
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