As yet another season of American Idol approaches, the question emerges now more than ever:
Is this the year?
Is this the year Idol falls from the pop culture heavens to become just another popular TV show? Is this the year viewers tire enough of the manipulation and cheesy product placement to take away the show's status as TV's highest-rated program?
Is this the year the widely watched departure of judge Paula Abdul and the addition of comic Ellen DeGeneres wreck the Idol formula for good?
Idol judge Randy Jackson doesn't think so, singing the show's praises Friday during a conference call with reporters. He shrugged off any notion that the show may face trouble transitioning between Abdul and DeGeneres.
"I think American Idol is the best show of its kind ever," said Jackson, who won't start working with DeGeneres until later this week, when Fox tapes its Hollywood round auditions. "I think we're going to have a very funny, interesting season ahead of us."
Whatever happens, you get the sense that Idol faces the same pivotal moment as network television in general. The old ways of making money are in doubt, and the new ways are not clear.
Yet, even rumors that Idol's biggest star, caustic-yet-perceptive judge Simon Cowell, is planning his own exit (to better launch his British-based Idol ripoff, The X Factor, in America) haven't diminished anticipation. And it is readily apparent that only sports, massive news events and rival reality show Dancing With the Stars can draw a similar crowd.
But still the question has to be asked: When Idol falls, will it also take network television with it?
Andy Dehnart, creator of the reality TV-focused Web site Reality Blurred, also doesn't expect an Idol collapse this year, regardless of how the Ellen/Paula transition works out.
“Idol was on the verge of becoming irrelevant last year, but Adam Lambert saved them," said Dehnart, who thinks DeGeneres' addition to the judges' table Feb. 9 will draw news coverage and viewers while staving off the biggest threat to the show's long-term survival: star Cowell's boredom.
"I can't imagine Fox thinking they can do American Idol without Simon Cowell, and X Factor is an Idol clone, which (has) not worked on American television," he said. "Ellen will bring more of a viewer's perspective but she'll be a knowledgeable viewer. She'll be more of a stand-in for viewers than a record executive like Simon or Kara (DioGuardi) . . . or a mental patient, like Paula."
Indeed, Abdul's departure wasn't entirely a surprise. The addition last year of DioGuardi seemed a backstop for Abdul, whose occasionally loopy on-air behavior and impolitic habit of criticizing Idol producers publicly often drew unflattering news coverage.
Now superfan DeGeneres seems just the celebrity juice Idol needs to stave off talk of decline in Abdul's wake. "Like we saw with Kara last season, I think (DeGeneres) is going to kick-start the other panelists," said Dehnart. "Just being new on the panel causes everybody to step up their game."
In their first joint interview, published Friday in Entertainment Weekly, DeGeneres and Cowell seemed to feed the rumors that they might clash at the judges' table, with the comic insisting "Simon really is, in my opinion, mean to people sometimes . . . So I think I'll be hard (as a judge), but if he's rude, I'm going to let him know he's rude."
Like most successful TV series, Idol's success comes from a combination of complex factors that fell together by chance and design. And the most unusual part of that success may be the structure of Idol's season.
Unscripted shows usually have phases within one episode, with a recap, a competition and an end result with built-in cliffhanger. But Idol is one of the few series that has phases over its entire season.
The show viewers see Tuesday and Wednesday focuses on auditions in Boston and Atlanta with guest judges filling Abdul's seat (former spice girl Victoria Beckham appears in Boston; Glee guest star Kristin Chenoweth joined the Orlando auditions — which Jackson said were the weirdest, of course — airing Jan. 20).
Expect a different kind of show Feb. 9, when this month's Hollywood auditions air. And that's different from the live performances, with 24 semifinalists, scheduled to start Feb. 23 — a step back from last year, when 36 semifinalists clogged the competition for three weeks, straining attention spans.
No wonder Fox has had such a tough time cloning the program.
Morphing from a show built on humiliating, awful auditions to the documented evolution of an aspiring pop star in real time, Idol snags a huge audience by changing fast enough to keep a nation's clicker-addicted hands at bay.
"A part of me felt like they send through people who are unpolished, but the talent was there . . . they needed a little more help," said Jay Rosenberg, 25, a Tampa singer who claims to have auditioned for every season of American Idol but two, progressing to the Hollywood round in Season 4.
Jackson insisted he could see the greatness of standouts such as Adam Lambert, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood from their first audition. "I'm always looking for the big three: undeniable talent, something that makes you unique and a star persona," he said.
Now fans like Rosenberg wonder if DeGeneres is going to help that talent development process or stymie it. "This is a critical year and critical season," he said. "Is Ellen tough? Is she supportive, like Paula? Does she have a good ear for music? Does she like male or female singers?"
Curious fans looking for answers to those questions will likely keep ratings high for this season. But if the answers don't breathe new life into Idol's complex formula, it could spark Cowell's departure and spell the beginning of the end.
And maybe not just for one show, but a huge chunk of television.
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. Follow him at the Feed, blogs. tampabay.com/media.