"American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest stands behind judges Ellen… (Michael Becker / MCT )
As it speeds toward its ninth-season finale Wednesday, fans of "American Idol" may wonder, figuratively speaking: Does the show have its, er, pants on the ground?
Evidence abounds that Fox's singing contest may be crooning its way to irrelevance. Although it's still at the top of TV's programming heap, "Idol" has slipped a worrying 9% in the ratings this year, according to the Nielsen Co, and the show has lost more than one-fifth of its audience since its peak in 2006. Critics have spent much of this spring harping on a crop of finalists that was widely deemed uninspiring, with few moments of spontaneity outside of would-be contestant Larry Platt's rap, "Pants on the Ground," which came during the early audition phase.
"I don't get the sense it was as exciting a season as mine or as others have been," Anoop Desai, a Season 8 finalist who just released his first album, said in an interview. "It's lacked the oomph it's had in seasons past."
And there's more trouble on the horizon. Lead judge Simon Cowell is fleeing to bring Fox his own show next year, the British hit "The X Factor," though rumors fly that producers are talking about Cowell's retaining some sort of on-air role with "Idol." Although plenty of names have been bandied about — Harry Connick Jr., Jamie Foxx, Elton John — producers have been mum about who will replace him. And in maybe the unkindest cut, CBS announced on Monday that Paula Abdul, who exited "Idol" last year after failing to reach a renewal deal with producers, will be the lead judge, executive producer and mentor on her own new reality-contest show, "Got to Dance." A CBS spokesman said no decision had been made yet about a time slot or premiere date for the Abdul show.
"I don't think anyone can replace Simon; he became the Capt. Kirk of the show," said veteran reality producer Scott Sternberg, who is not connected to "Idol." "Whoever they bring in is not going to be what he is. They're going to have to find their way." It's possible the producers could even decide not to replace Cowell at all and see what happens by returning to a three-judge format, he added.
For their part, the show's producers and Fox executives aren't about to show their hands. A spokesman for Fremantle Media and 19 Entertainment, the companies behind the show, said a producer was unavailable to comment for this story.
In a phone call with reporters last week before Fox's unveiling of its fall schedule, Fox broadcasting chief Peter Rice said that the network will soon begin discussing format changes with the show's producers. But Rice batted aside worries about "Idol's" long-term viability. "The wonderful thing about the show is that we get a new cast every year," he said.
Many viewers were less than thrilled with this year's finalists, however. Ratings at first followed the typical "Idol" pattern of a big premiere, followed by a midseason plateau. But in a surprise twist, the program didn't see its usual late-inning ratings bounce — in fact, after the Top 10 were selected, "Idol" sank to some of its lowest numbers in years. The May 4 performance show, dedicated to the music of Frank Sinatra, slumped to just 17.5 million viewers, far below the season average of 24.9 million.
This year's top two finalists, Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze, have relatively reserved on-camera personas, unlike, say, Adam Lambert, last season's drama-loving runner-up. Bowersox and DeWyze also exude an alternative vibe that may be less commercial than the R&B, power-pop and country formats that have formerly proved "Idol" sweet spots. Desai said this year's lineup generally lacked the soaring, dramatic voices of years past.
" 'Idol' in past seasons has been all about the big note," he said. "And I didn't see that this year at all. … Getting back to the roots is always a good thing, but at the same time it sacrifices a little of the excitement not having the power notes, not having the singers who can just blow your face off."
Meanwhile, even fans of Ellen DeGeneres' work elsewhere were generally underwhelmed with her role as the fourth judge on "Idol."
"She played it very safe," Sternberg said. "She said not a lot, a few jokes here and there. She was extraordinarily neutral. … I'm not sure whether Fox reaped the benefits of casting her."
DeGeneres also appeared to enjoy little chemistry with Cowell — the two were dogged by reports of mutual dislike and were rarely seen interacting at the judges' table.
Picking a replacement for Cowell could give the producers a chance to reinvigorate the show — or hasten its decline. "His replacement will have to know the business, be brutally honest and snarky and preferably [have] a British accent, as Americans love snippy British judges," Shari Anne Brill, an independent programming analyst, wrote in an e-mail.
But others say "Idol's" biggest problem may be beyond fixing — even if the producers find many more "Pants on the Ground" moments. Simply put, the show's novelty may be wearing off for millions of viewers.
"I think it's at least another good couple of seasons in it," Sternberg said, "and then, like all shows, it'll just start to fade away."