When "American Idol" returns for its 10th season on Fox Jan. 19, it will have two fresh (and very famous) faces at the judges' table. And it will also feature, the network promises, a renewed focus on the warbling would-be stars who are supposed to be the singing smash's reason for existence in the first place.
Ah, but something will be missing. Oh, right — the sassy guy with the flattop and tight T-shirts.
The big suspense surrounding the new "Idol" isn't whether Steven Tyler will be introduced as Liv Tyler's father or Jennifer Lopez will salvage her fading career. The Aerosmith frontman and Bronx-born J-Lo were picked as new judges amid a seemingly endless carnival of speculation last summer. Instead, the real story centers on whether the show will survive the departure of Simon Cowell, the caustic lead judge who rode his merciless putdowns of auditioners to high-powered stardom.
The stakes are incredibly high for Fox. "Idol" is the No. 1 series on television and has propelled Fox to repeated victories in the crucial demographic of adults ages 18 to 49, according to the Nielsen Co. The singing contest has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for Fox and made it nearly impossible for ABC and NBC to compete in midweek during the winter and spring months. CBS, the most-watched network, has fared much better but has nevertheless been held to a counterprogramming strategy, batting back the "Idol" threat with franchise crime series such as "Criminal Minds" and "NCIS," which skew heavily toward older viewers. And at a time when broadcasting was supposed to be slumping off into irrelevance, "Idol" proved that 30 million viewers will still crowd around a network show, provided it's the right network show.
At least for the record, Fox executives insist there's little cause for concern. "Idol" — produced by Fremantle Media and 19 Entertainment — just needs a few tweaks and, in any event, a somewhat less big "Idol" is still huge.
"For any show in its 10th season to be holding up as well as 'Idol' is a testament to the show," said Preston Beckman, Fox's research and scheduling guru. "It's been about 60% higher than the next highest-rated show, so worst-case scenario, it'll still be the biggest show on television."
"Idol" indeed has a long way to fall before it could be considered in trouble. It has been the No. 1 program for a record six straight years — longer than any show, scripted or otherwise, including " All in the Family," "The Cosby Show" and "I Love Lucy."
This season, the network is hoping "Idol" can push it to the top of the heap on Thursdays, a night where Fox has historically been weak. Executives made the decision to move the results show there (after following a Tuesday-Wednesday schedule in years past) after CBS pulled "Survivor" off the night.
"We could go into next season as the No. 1 network on Thursday night," Beckman said.
But there is a sense that Fox is on the defensive, that the network must stop more air from escaping the "Idol" balloon. Last May's finale drew 24.2 million total viewers — still an enormous figure, but "Idol's" worst season closer since its first back in 2002. Critics griped about the perceived blandness of the contestants, including runner-up Crystal Bowersox and the self-effacing winner Lee DeWyze. Even the show's once formidable infrastructure seemed out of whack. Ellen DeGeneres, who was hired to replace Paula Abdul on the judge's table, proved an awkward fit. Trying to accommodate reactions from a quartet of judges — actually the same number as on "Pop Idol," the show's British predecessor — threw off the pacing and often made the program run long. Cowell exited after last season to prepare his own talent contest, "The X Factor," for a Fox run later this year.
"In the past couple years, it was like so much oxygen seemed to be consumed by everything going on the judges' panel that the poor kids hardly had a chance to introduce themselves," said Richard Rushfield, who formerly ran the Idol Tracker blog for The Times and is the author of the forthcoming book "'American Idol': The Untold Story."
Perhaps as a result, the last few crops of "Idol" singers haven't broken through to mainstream success the way earlier performers did, such as Season 1's Kelly Clarkson, Season 4's Carrie Underwood and Season 5's Chris Daughtry (who did not win or make the finals of the contest).
"The biggest thing that 'Idol' needs to do this year," Rushfield said, "is produce a major recording star. They haven't done that in a lot of years, and it's sort of the premise of the show."
Thus, what those close to the show promise will be a return to roots. Nigel Lythgoe, the producer and "So You Think You Can Dance" judge who left "Idol" in 2008 after reportedly tangling with Cowell, has come back to oversee the show.