Season premiere at 8 tonight and Wednesday on FOX
With all of the questions hanging over the new season of "American Idol," the least interesting of all might be the oldest: Who will be the next "American Idol"?
As Fox prepares to raise the curtain tonight on the ninth season of its smash-hit singing competition, most of the intrigue has been focused beyond the stage - on the judges, the ratings, the voting procedures and the annual tinkering with the show's format, which, at least to Fox and the producers, never seems just right.
Since the end of the last season, the producers have made one of the show's biggest changes. Paula Abdul, who since the show's beginning had nurtured contestants and played the role of nice judge to Simon Cowell's mean one, is gone, replaced by Ellen DeGeneres, talk-show host and comic. DeGeneres will not be seen until early February, however, when the taped "Hollywood round" of episodes, taking place this week in Los Angeles, whittles some 200 contestants down to 24 semifinalists. Guest judges - including Victoria Beckham, Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry - will fill the fourth spot at the judges' table during the audition episodes.
If the addition last season of a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, upset the balance that gave the "Idol" judging panel an air of predictability, the arrival of DeGeneres is likely to be even more disruptive, not least because she might have a wit sharp enough to puncture the pontifications that often emanate from Cowell.
And according to news reports, Cowell says this season will be his last as a judge of "Idol." Cowell plans to bring "The X Factor," another talent competition, to U.S. television beginning in 2011.
Last year an average of 25 million people watched each episode of "American Idol," according to Nielsen, down from 26.7 million a year earlier. That was the third straight year of decline, since the average audience peaked above 30 million in the fifth season.
Most of the decline has been among teenage viewers, according to Brad Adgate, a senior vice president for research at Horizon Media.
The producers of "Idol" have not been content to rest on their laurels. Two years ago they began to allow contestants to play instruments when they sang. Last year they expanded the semifinal round to 36 contestants from 24, a format that allowed the judges to give some of their favorites another chance to impress voters in a wild-card round before the field was narrowed to a final 13.
Exactly what the producers have planned for this season is a mystery. While the show's executive producers have usually briefed reporters each year on plans for the new season, this season's briefing was canceled without explanation last week. (Fox executives, however, have said to expect just 24 semifinalists this year, no wild-card round and only 12 finalists, the typical number.)
It is not clear whether Fox will adjust the voting procedures that drew criticism last season. Even as the audience has declined for several years, the number of votes cast each week has skyrocketed.
After last season's finale, some viewers admitted casting thousands of votes by text message, perhaps in violation of rules against using "technical enhancements" to cast blocs of votes. In Arkansas - the home of the eventual winner, Kris Allen - representatives of AT&T, an "Idol" sponsor, provided free phones and texting lessons at a party filled with Allen's supporters.
While that might have helped Allen win, it has not helped him sell more records than last season's runner-up, Adam Lambert.