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While early winners like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood sold platinum-plus, last year’s champ Lee DeWyze barely cracked 135k with his debut.
AN IDOL RETURN
Fox’s Singing Competition Faces Major Overhaul 10 Years After Its Debut
Say it ain’t so. Can it really be almost a decade since American Idol debuted on Fox in June 2, 2002, with Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman (who?) as co-hosts?

The show, which returns tonight and tomorrow night for its 10th year, has become a cultural phenomenon, the #1-rated program on TV, even if it did decline to 24 million viewers last year, down from a peak of 30.3 million in 2006, with its demo graying from 32 years old in its debut season to 45 last year.

American Idol still gets more than $400k per commercial minute, with a fortune in commercial sponsorships and tie-ins, but returning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe and company are intent on polishing the brand.

Judges Simon Cowell, Ellen DeGeneris and Kara DioGuardi are out, replaced by certifiable superstar names Steve Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, with the lone holdover Big Dawg Randy Jackson. In addition, Interscope Geffen A&M majordomo Jimmy Iovine has been brought aboard as a “permamentor,” part of Universal Music Group’s involvement after it secured the franchise from Sony Music with a spirited bid by Lucian Grainge, who has seen first-hand the possibilities of music on TV from his U.K. home turf.

The show has already implemented several tweaks—including accepting online submissions, limiting the playing of instruments and lowering the age limit to 15—but its real effort has come in the area of trying to be relevant to the record industry.

While early winners like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood sold platinum-plus, last year’s champ Lee DeWyze barely cracked 135k with his debut. In fact, the last three winners—DeWyze, Chris Allen and David Cook—have barely made a dent on the charts. This year, AI hopes to get the participants’ albums to the market that much sooner, as well as taking advantage of the instant availability of individual tracks on iTunes, much like Glee has.

Plenty will be riding on the outcome, as a disastrously slumping record biz needs all the help it can get in terms of finding and breaking new acts.

Can new life be breathed into the American Idol franchise? Can the show’s one undisputed star (aside from Ryan Seacrest), Simon Cowell, be effectively replaced? Can AI beat back the challenge of the latter’s upcoming The X Factor and the proliferation of singing/dancing reality competition shows that have risen in its wake? Can it unearth superstars on the order of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga?  Can Tyler and Lopez find their footing as effective judges?

All those questions and more will start to be answered tonight. Be there and be square. You don’t want to be left out of the office water cooler conversation, do you?

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