Host change among tweaks to Fox's megahit

Never mind the wannabe Adam Lamberts or Carrie Underwoods. The real drama this season on “American Idol” centers on the fate of acerbic judge Simon Cowell.

The show is locked on Fox through at least 2011, but Cowell’s megabucks deal with it expires at the end of this season.

At stake, of course, is the future of “Idol,” perhaps the most important TV franchise in history. Back in 2007, Advertising Age calculated “Idol’s” worth at $2.5 billion, and that number is surely larger now. The show fetches $500 million a year in ad revenue alone.

Idol” has helped Fox win primetime’s adults 18-49 crown for five straight seasons — and given that the net enters January as the top network for the first time, a sixth year is virtually assured.

Cowell is considered a critical part of what makes the “Idol” formula a smash, which is why he reportedly makes as much as $45 million annually from the show.

A new pact, perhaps tied to a long-expected Fox adaptation of his U.K. smash “The X Factor,” could be resolved in the coming weeks, eliminating that distraction as the show’s talent contest heats up.

A “will he or won’t he” drama, played out over the course of the season, could help bolster interest in what otherwise might be considered “Idol’s” biggest wild-card season yet.

The show encountered some bumps last year, as the decision to add a fourth judge (Kara DioGuardi) disrupted its rhythm, and the move to expand to 36 semifinalists wound up slowing down the show’s pace.

By the end of the eighth season, “Idol” was still the No. 1 show on television (25 million viewers), but dropped to its lowest viewership since season three in 2004.

There’s still enormous good will for ‘American Idol,’ ” says Fox scheduling and program strategy topper Preston Beckman. “This show is going into its ninth season, and it’s rare for a show to stay as high, and grow, as ‘Idol’ has. Now we’re in a normal, natural path. There’s a little shedding of the audience. But this is the kind of show we can, with the right group of 12 kids, turn the ratings around a bit.”

The exit of eccentric judge Paula Abdul isn’t expected to hit “Idol” the way, say, Cowell’s much-rumored departure might eventually have. But it’s unclear how her absence might alter the show’s DNA.

Abdul’s personality gave “Idol” both an unpredictable quality and a big dose of emotion, after all, providing for some water cooler moments (what was in her plastic Coca-Cola cup?). She also served as a buffer between Cowell’s cranky personality and fellow judge Randy Jackson’s incoherent utterances.

Abdul will be replaced by the well-liked DeGeneres, who is expected to add a strong dose of humor to the proceedings.

But DeGeneres isn’t expected to generate the same kind of headlines that Abdul triggered, and also doesn’t offer the same kind of music experience that one-time chart topper Abdul possessed.

“Idol” also faces tougher competish this year, including February’s Winter Olympics. The show did just fine opposite the Olympics four years ago, but that was when it was still on a growth spurt.

“Idol” also goes up against more solid regularly scheduled shows than in years past, particularly with its Wednesday results show, which faces off against established players on CBS (“Criminal Minds”), NBC (“Law & Order: SVU) and a hot newcomer on ABC (comedy “Modern Family”).

It’s not necessarily the case that we go in and shred the other networks anymore,” Beckman says. “We bring in people from all over the place who don’t watch network TV, who don’t watch Fox. And as far as the Olympics go, we held our own four years ago, we didn’t blink. We put our show on, and the Olympics go on.”

But just in case, “Idol” has a February weapon of its own: DeGeneres, who didn’t participate in the audition rounds, makes her first appearance on the Feb. 9 episode (yes, during sweeps — and right before the Olympics get under way) in time for its Hollywood rounds.

And before DeGeneres shows up, “Idol” might benefit from a flurry of guest judges in the audition rounds. Victoria Beckham, Mary J. Blige, Neil Patrick Harris, Joe Jonas and Katy Perry are among the visitors.

A lot of them work really well,” Beckman says. “We’ve had guest judges in the past, but never consistently as these auditions. That will be interesting and hopefully keep people’s attentions.

“Idol” may also score an assist from Fox’s primetime momentum, as the network is coming off a particularly strong fall. The show will also once again blanket Fox’s sked, particularly in the late February/early March time frame, when “Idol” airs five hours a week — two on Tuesday and Wednesday, and one on Thursday.

Beckman says “Idol” will ultimately air approximately the same number of hours it did last year, around 52 total.

Meanwhile, the show has also reversed last year’s decision to go with 36 semi-finalists, and is returning to the format that was in place from seasons four through seven.

That means “Idol” will showcase 24 semifinalists (12 men and 12 women) at the end of February, following the audition episodes and the Hollywood round. After a few more rounds, the show’s 12 finalists will be revealed on Thursday, March 11.

But maybe Fox, Cowell and “Idol” producers 19 Ent. and FremantleMedia North America shouldn’t be in a rush to make such a pronouncement.

Beckman says the move back to 24 semifinalists came after the network and producers did focus group research.

People felt that there was a middle round they could do without,” Beckman says. “They weren’t seeing some kids for a few weeks.”

With such a large crop of semifinalists, network execs and producers believed that a few contestants got in there who shouldn’t have — and as a result, conventional wisdom grew that last year’s talent was weaker than it really was.

And then there’s the Adam Lambert factor. Lambert didn’t even win “Idol’s” season eight, but it doesn’t matter. The performer’s controversial antics this fall kept both him and the show in the headlines. Those headlines will pale to the amount of media attention the show will receive once Cowell announces his future plans.

Fox, 19 and FremantleMedia aren’t talking about their negotiations with Cowell just yet. But it’s already shaping up to be one of TV’s most important stories of 2010.

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