Nine years ago, a brutally honest record exec named Simon Cowell was so vicious as a judge on a new musical talent show that a few performers he rudely rejected came after him with baseball bats. Fellow judge Paula Abdul was so put out by his rough treatment of young singers that at one point during the first season, she stormed off the set threatening to quit. The third judge, Randy Jackson, once could be seen standing up angrily behind the judges' table, looking like he was going to clobber Cowell.
Despite that rocky beginning, or perhaps because of it, American Idol became a ratings phenomenon. For nine seasons, viewers often tuned in as much to hear Cowell's critiques as they did to hear the contestants sing. Then, last winter, the brash Brit delivered his biggest rejection of all. He announced he was leaving Idol to start up an American version of his hit British series The X Factor. So now, as Idol enters its 10th season without its biggest star, the question is this: How can it survive without him?
It certainly has plenty of work to do. While the series remains a colossal hit, it has been showing signs of viewer fatigue. Last season's ratings were down almost 9 percent from Season 8, and 20 percent from Season 6. "Without Simon, there is blood in the water," says one rival TV executive who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "We expect a big tune-in for the first couple of shows, out of curiosity. But after that, we think the ratings are going to drop at least 25 percent."
That's why big changes are in store this season, which "I've been calling Idol: The Remix," says Jackson, whose own job as a judge was in question when the executive producers — including the returning Nigel Lythgoe — considered every possible scenario to freshen up the franchise. Explains executive producer Ken Warwick: "The fact that Simon left meant that we had to find new judges. And that spurred us on to say, 'Right, let's give it a rebirth.'"
That delivery began with producers tossing out the old Idol playbook. Judges Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi were dropped, they said sayonara to the famous guest mentors hawking their latest CDs, lowered the minimum age for contestants and changed the rules about playing musical instruments. The show is also delving into the brave new world of social media (which may include contestant Twittering and online voting) and is — gasp! — taking the bold step of switching the nights the show is on the air. No more Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Idol has now found a home on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Fox's head of alternative programming, Mike Darnell, isn't worried about altering an ingrained, nine-year viewing habit. "You gotta remember that this show has aired a lot of times on Thursday," he says, "when it's audition episodes or specials, or when the president speaks. So it's not hard to reconfigure people's minds."
Every change is designed to address a perceived weakness that has cropped up in recent years. For that reason, the four-judge panel is a thing of the past because "having three speeds the show up," says Warwick, "so you can actually see more of the kids. But it had to be the right three."
Briefly, the producers pondered hiring three completely new judges, but eventually reconsidered and kept Jackson. "We felt that there should be some form of continuity," says Warwick. And how did producers approach the daunting task of replacing Mr. Cowell? Simple. By not replacing him.
Says Warwick: "It was never about any individual person taking over for Simon. Simon's unique. Looking for a replacement in that respect was never going to happen. So we have a new panel with different chemistry and a lot of star power."
Enter Aerosmith legend Steven Tyler and actress/pop star Jennifer Lopez, who were both looking for a fresh spin on their own careers. "When I heard who it was, I was jumpin' up and down," says Jackson, who is "happy/sad" about working with his new posse while losing Cowell.
"Listen, Steven Tyler is a true rock legend," says Jackson. "And with J.Lo, you've got a triple threat: actress, singer, dancer. We sat down at a dinner before we got started [on the show], and I'm telling you, it was on from moment two."
These three have known each other professionally for years, so no ice had to be broken as Tyler and Lopez peppered Jackson with questions about how the show works. "Whatever tentativeness or worries or concerns we might have had went out the window," says Lopez. Host Ryan Seacrest, who didn't know Tyler but does know Lopez through interviews on his radio show, says they found their comfort level in a hurry. Notes Seacrest, "It's not like it's the first day on the job."