“Idol” Chatter Strikes Sour Note

The endless summer name game over who will replace Simon Cowell is becoming more of a buzz kill than a buzz generator

The tweet read around the world hit cyberspace just over a year ago, on Aug. 4, 2009, when Paula Abdul revealed “with sadness in my heart” that she was leaving "American Idol" after eight seasons.

The news sent shockwaves through the masses whose immediate reaction wasn't "Who cares?" Rampant conjecture about a replacement ended a little over a month later with the announcement Ellen DeGeneres would be joining the judges' panel.

Not a bad way for the program to grab some publicity in the dead of summer.

A year later, with Simon Cowell and DeGeneres both off the show, we're mired in an endless summer name game that's bordering on a word never before associated with "American Idol": boring.

Every day, it seems, brings breathless talk of new possible panelists: Elton John (unlikely). Justin Timberlake (ditto). Steven Tyler (Not if Joe Perry has anything to say about it, though "inside" sources say he's very close to inking a deal). Jennifer Lopez (Is she in or out?). Even Abdul (Could a cryptic tweet hold clues?). And even, Shania Twain (Hmm, she did well as a guest judge last season…).

While the decision on Abdul's replacement proved relatively swift, the latest speculation has swirled virtually nonstop since January when Cowell confirmed he was leaving. So what was once a buzz generator is verging on buzz kill (or overkill).

There are other differences from last year’s panel switch: longtime fans held an emotional investment in the charmingly loopy Abdul, the show's defender of the little guy, talented or otherwise. The departure of Cowell, a crusher of dreams who inspired strong feelings of another sort, is old news. Few are getting worked up over DeGeneres quitting or whether Kara DioGuardi will return for Season 10.

Abdul's departure also exposed the show's secret: to succeed, "American Idol" ultimately needs to be more about the contestants than the panelists. Last season's relatively weak talent pool quickly became overshadowed by Cowell's impending exit and DeGeneres' failure to click, upsetting the show's delicate balance and no doubt contributing to declining ratings of TV's No. 1 program.

All of that apparently wasn’t lost on returning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who told E! News in April when he was still on the sidelines: "It shouldn't be about the judges. It should be about the young talent.”

He also called for jettisoning all the judges and starting fresh – an idea we’ve endorsed, with the added suggestion of making prospective judges audition and letting the TV audience pick the new panel.

We’ll stick to that advice, and recommend that Lythgoe and Fox make some kind of decision soon. All this “Idol” chatter is getting old – which is not good for a show that should be about youth.

In that spirit, with calendar between the first anniversaries of Abdul’s departure and DeGeneres’ arrival, we’ll point to another, perhaps more important, date: Thursday, Aug. 19. That’s when the latest batch of hopefuls is set to go through the initial mass audition process, at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

Somewhere in that group could be the key to the show’s future: a talented unknown months away from becoming a household name – one more far important to “American Idol” fans than whatever big names wind up on the judges’ panel.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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