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"You'll never change the core of American Idol—finding someone out of nowhere and having the audience turn them into a big star."
——a Fox exec

IDOL GETTING “REINVIGORATED”

Exits of Tyler and Lopez Bespeak a Makeover of the Longtime Ratings Juggernaut
Potential contestants aren’t the only ones busting out their performing skills in advance of the next season of American Idol. Fox execs are also searching for a more vital part of the cast.

"Dozens" of candidates to replace judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler are being interviewed, a person close to the show tells the Wall Street Journal, adding that changes in the judging panel will be "dramatic." Among those rumored to be in the mix are Miley Cyrus, Kanye West and—as previously reported—Mariah Carey.
 
"You want a mix of star power and credibility," said the source, who mentioned only that the new judges would be "different" from Lopez and Steven Tyler. "Once you pick them, you cross your fingers."

Fox has said for months that a retooling is in the works for season 12, which kicks off  in January. In the spring, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly mentioned a "creative reinvigoration" and big cheese Rupert Murdoch himself weighed in last week, claiming that the departures of Lopez and Tyler were "part of a plan."

The stakes are high for the network. Topping the ratings throughout its existence, the show has kept Fox #1 among viewers in the coveted 18-to-49 demo, and second overall behind CBS. Because of its pull, Fox has used the show as a launching pad for new series, most notably Glee.

Despite still being the top series on television, though unseated last fall in overall viewers by NBC's Sunday Night Football, Idol’s total audience has fallen nearly 50% from its peak of 31 million in 2006 to just over 17 million—2 million more last season if you include DVR viewing. Next to Idol, Fox’s biggest show is rival The X Factor, with an average of some 11 million people tuning into its debut season, according to Nielsen. Other competitors have increasingly challenged Idol's dominance, led, of course, by NBC's The Voice.

Moreover, the show’s viewers are getting older. The average age was 49 last season, up from 32 when the series debuted in 2002, according to figures provided by Fox. The decline has hit ad revenues, which fell last year to $732 million from $792 million the year before. The average cost of a 30-second spot during Idol’s season 11 earlier this year was $491,781, about half of the high of $813,351 in 2007. For the coming season, Fox has already had to agree to 20% discounts for its top sponsors. At least one major sponsor was given cash back because of rating shortfalls last year, according to another source.

In addition to new faces, this source said that the overall revamp will involve tweaks to the show's format, "possibly" including how audience members vote for contestants. While Idol has always relied on phone texting to cast votes via its partnership with AT&T, the same person said voting could additionally become more closely tied to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The show generated 6 million comments on social media sites last season, the most of all TV programs, according to media metrics company BlueFin Labs.

Industry executives say that given its age, a continuing decline in the show is hard to avoid. "American Idol is a juggernaut franchise that still has many seasons left, but once a program starts to fall from its peak, you are working to minimize the decline," said Kris Magel, director of national broadcast at media buying firm Initiative. "Barring Idol signing up Jay-Z or Bono, it's kind of inevitable.”

“For it to survive this long is a miracle," said a person close to the show. "It's the way of television that shows age. [But] reality shows have something that aging dramas don't: instant renewal. Every year we have a new cast."

Said a Fox exec, "At the end of the day, you'll never change the core of American Idol—finding someone out of nowhere and having the audience turn them into a big star."
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