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Though Cowell’s contract expires after this season, he had said he expected to be with the show for much longer but, more recently, voiced his feeling that he was ready to ankle the popular show.

AMERICAN IDOL RETURNS, BUT SIMON'S GONE

Ellen DeGeneres Is In... and Simon Cowell Out After This Year

The juggernaut is back, but its main figure will be splitting.

American Idol
returns to Fox for its ninth season tomorrow night, which will now be the final year for Simon Cowell, with Paula Abdul out, and Ellen DeGeneres in. Cowell has inked a new deal with the network to produce and be a judge on his version of his U.K. hit, The X Factor, which will debut in fall 2011. That is the show which first introduced Leona Lewis to the world.

DeGeneres will not appear on American Idol until early February, when the taped “Hollywood round,” which take place this week, airs. Until then, guest judges such as Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne and Victoria Beckham will sit in for the audition episodes.

Though Cowell’s contract expires after this season, he had said he expected to be with the show for much longer but, more recently, voiced his feeling that he was ready to ankle the popular show. Last month his brother, a British radio journalist, reported that Cowell had decided to leave after this season, something that Cowell himself has not disputed.

Cowen has been negotiating with Fox to bring The X Factor to the U.S. for awhile, and the deal was just struck, with Simon signing a contract at today's Television Critics' Association session hosted by the network. Among the rumors is that Cowell has invited Abdul to join him as a judge on the new show.  

Meanwhile, American Idol viewership last year was down to 25 million from 26.7 million the year before, the third straight year of decline since audience numbers peaked at 30 million-plus in the fifth season.

Most of the decline has been among teenage viewers. Last year’s ratings among viewers ages 12 to 17 and adults ages 18 to 49 were the lowest since the inaugural season, while the show’s highest-rated demographic group was adults 35 to 64.

Idol producers have continually tweaked the format. 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 hasn’t been revealed by executive 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 voting procedures that drew criticism last season.

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 the eventual winners’ supporters.

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