And when "American Idol" returns to the air in January, its biggest draw — Simon Cowell — will be gone.
Cowell, the British judge whose brutal critiques reduced even supremely confident contestants to quivering blobs of protoplasm, left after nine seasons to launch his own musical talent show, "The X Factor," which is to debut in fall 2011 and widely seen as a challenge to "American Idol."
"What I see in my mind is a series of question marks," said Brent Poer, a senior vice president at the advertising firm MediaVest, whose clients include Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart.
Fox's contract for "Idol" expires in 2012. Even though Cowell's exit and his emergence as a rival with "The X Factor" could mean a ratings and revenue hit to "Idol," Fox will probably sign a new deal for at least a couple of seasons, people familiar with the situation said.
One plus to Cowell's leaving is that Fox's cost for the show will drop, since he was pulling down about $35 million a season.
"The economics still work even if the ratings get cut in half," Argento said.
That may be true for Fox, but it remains to be seen if the economics will be as favorable for any buyers of CKX.