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Measuring the Ellen DeGeneres effect on 'American Idol'

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The deal that made her a judge came together quickly. But can she help the show?

September 11, 2009|Maria Elena Fernandez and ; Denise Martin

To add Ellen or not to add Ellen, that was the question -- but only for a quick minute.

The sudden departure of Paula Abdul from her "American Idol" judging job on Aug. 4, three days before auditions were beginning, left Fox, FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment scrambling for a replacement.

As they frenetically booked guest judges for auditions in different cities, executives simultaneously focused on the long-term problem of finding someone to permanently fill Abdul's shoes. In interviews Thursday with executives directly involved in the surprise move, the behind-the-scenes discussions were revealed to have been surprisingly smooth.

It was not until a little more than two weeks ago that the idea of Ellen DeGeneres, who guest-judged on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance," also produced by FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment, and hosted "Idol Gives Back" two years ago, occurred to executives. But DeGeneres, obviously attached to her popular daily talk show, seemed like a long shot.

Until executives picked up the phone and called her.

"She was really keen and thought it was a fantastic idea and we all just got very, very excited," said Cecile Frot-Coutaz, chief executive of FremantleMedia North America. "It was a pretty easy and straightforward process, I have to say."

And it will undoubtedly go down as one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets in this day of 24-hour tweeting and blogging. Even Fox's president of reality programming, Mike Darnell, is surprised that word didn't get out before DeGeneres announced it Wednesday during a taping of her talk show.

"It helped that it was Labor Day weekend and it's summer so people are in and out," Darnell said. "But it came together very fast. To be honest, I did not think we would get a name this big, this quickly."

The addition of the comedian to the panel has generated mostly positive reactions, although some critics charged that by choosing a judge with no music industry background, "Idol" may have "jumped the shark" -- industry lingo for a once-successful show that is nearing its final days. In her first interview since the news broke, DeGeneres said she hopes to bring the viewer's perspective to the foursome.

"The people are the ones that choose the American idol," she told Ryan Seacrest on Thursday on his radio show. "Ultimately it doesn't come down to some expert in the music industry, it comes down to everybody at home that says, 'That's the person I relate to, that's the person that I'm going to buy music from.' "

That strategy could give the aging show "the shot in the arm" it needs in terms of its ratings, said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media Inc., an ad services firm. Although "Idol" still tramples the competition, its audience has been eroding for four years.

"I think it's kind of surprising because she does have a talk show, but it just points to the fact that they're looking more for an entertainment perspective as opposed to perhaps a singing criteria," Adgate said. "It will be interesting to see the by-play between her and Simon Cowell in particular. She's not someone who's going to back down. She's going to give it as good as she gets it. They're probably looking for some sort of chemistry."

Though "Idol" is largely about the contestants, and which one America picks as a favorite, the dynamics among the judges provide entertainment value that should not be overlooked, said Shari Anne Brill, director of audience analysis for Carat, an ad-buying firm.

"This sets the stage for a lot of interesting dynamics," she said. "It's not really out of left field. They needed another judge to provide comic relief. Only with Ellen, it's intended."

The particulars of DeGeneres' five-year contract with "Idol" are still being worked out, including when she will begin her judging duties, Darnell said.

"I've gone through the criticism, and I think a lot of these kids all of the sudden are just thrust into this limelight and don't understand that this is just the beginning of being judged," DeGeneres told Seacrest. "This is just the start of people having opinions about you, so hopefully I will be able to guide them through that, and give them good advice and spot somebody that I think is going to be a huge talent."

--

maria.elena.fernandez

@latimes.com

denise.martin@latimes.com

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