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'American Idol' enters crisis mode

Amid falling ratings and exits of judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, Fox grapples with how to pump up the show again.

July 14, 2012|By Joe Flint and Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
  • Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez will be leaving "American Idol."
Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez will be leaving "American Idol." (Chris Pizzello, Associated…)

Next week, thousands of wannabe superstars will descend on New Orleans to audition for Fox's "American Idol" in pursuit of their dream of being the next Carrie Underwood or Adam Lambert.

But who will ultimately judge their fate is now a mystery.

Like a baseball owner angry that his team made the playoffs but didn't win the World Series, Fox is overhauling the popular musical talent show after a season that saw its viewership fall by 23% and NBC's"Sunday Night Football" franchise surpass it as the most popular program on television.

PHOTOS: 'Idol' judges through the years

On Friday, Jennifer Lopez said she was leaving the show to resume her music and acting career. Her move came less than 24 hours after Steven Tyler said he was leaving to focus full time on his rock band Aerosmith. Randy Jackson, who has been a judge on the show since its debut in 2002, may also be on the way out.

Behind the scenes, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe has yet to sign a new deal to stay with the show and Simon Fuller, the creator of "American Idol," may also have a reduced role next season as well. Fox declined to comment for this article as did Lythgoe's office.

Fox's willingness to overhaul its most powerful television property after an off season is indicative of how rare and valuable a hit show is in today's fragmented media landscape. Networks no longer can afford to be patient when a program enters into a little slump even if the show in question is one of the biggest in television history, generating billions of dollars in profits.

"It's like the Yankees. They can't have a rebuilding period," said Brad Adgate of Horizon Media, a media buying firm whose clients include Capital One and Geico.

While Tyler positioned his exit as his choice, a person familiar with the situation said Fox decided not to exercise its option to keep the Aerosmith lead singer on board. There was interest in keeping Lopez but not at the price tag her camp floated.

This is not the first time Fox has had to perform an emergency surgery on "American Idol." In 2009, Paula Abdul was replaced by Ellen DeGeneres, a move that didn't work out.

And in 2010 Simon Cowell, the cranky British judge who was seen as the soul of the show, departed to launch"The X Factor," another singing show on Fox last season.

While Fox has dominated the ratings among young viewers for eight seasons in a row, CBS has been closing the gap and next season has the Super Bowl, which could pump up its numbers even further.

"They have to offer something that brings that casual viewer back and make them feel like the show is different," Adgate said.

To do that Fox will need names at least as big as Lopez and Tyler.

While the network is keeping mum on its plans, there's been talk out there about potential new panelists — namely, Mariah Carey, Katy Perry and "Idol" alum Adam Lambert. Lambert denied reports, but in a statement said he'd be "flattered to have that conversation."

"The thing these shows thrive on is attention, and this will bring a whole lot of attention to 'American Idol,'" said TV historian Tim Brooks. "It's a real opportunity that might keep it from falling further."

"American Idol" isn't the only show getting a makeover. Fox has already overhauled Cowell's "The X Factor" for its second season this fall, spending big bucks to land Britney Spears and Demi Lovato as judges, following the exits of Nicole Scherzinger and Abdul after just one season.

The extensive chase for celebrity names comes as musical talent shows are multiplying. "American Idol" has seen its dominance nibbled away by NBC's "The Voice,"which counts Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton as judges.

NBC also brought in Howard Stern to juice up the ratings of its summer show "America's Got Talent." ABC recently made attempts to get in the game with "Duets," also featuring name-talent including "Idol" alum Kelly Clarkson, Robin Thicke and John Legend.

Lopez's announcement, fittingly, occurred on "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest's syndicated morning radio program.

When Seacrest asked the singer-actress about rampant speculation of her departure, the 42-year-old star tearfully confirmed she was leaving the show.

"I honestly feel that the time has come where I have to get back to doing the other things that I do that I kind of put on hold because I loved 'Idol' so much," she said.

"I could keep doing 'Idol' for the rest of my life," she said, "but that would be giving up a bunch of other things. I just feel like we had an amazing run."

Although Lopez was only on "American Idol" for two seasons, it helped revitalize her tepid career. Her 2011 album, "Love?," entered the charts at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 charts, and the lead single, "On the Floor," landed her highest debut ever at No. 9.

PHOTOS: 'Idol' judges through the years

She also scored major endorsement deals (Fiat and L'Oreal, to name two), a clothing line with Kohl's, a co-headlining world tour with Enrique Iglesias and three new movies, one of which —"Ice Age: Continental Drift" — is now in theaters.

She has also parlayed her "Idol" platform into other TV projects.

Lopez launched a Latin talent competition show, "'Q'Viva: The Chosen," with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Marc Anthony, on Univision and Fox. She's also recently sold a reality show to Oxygen centered around the dancers who will tour with her.

Downplaying conjecture that she was engaged in a tug-of-war with Fox to beef up terms of her contract, Lopez told Seacrest: "It wasn't playing games or doing anything or wanting more and more money. It wasn't any of that."

Times staff writer Greg Braxton contributed to this report.

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