As it speeds toward its ninth-season finale today, fans of "American Idol" may wonder, figuratively speaking: Does the show have its, er, pants on the ground?
Evidence abounds that Fox's singing contest may be crooning its way to irrelevance. Although it's still at the top of TV's programming heap, "Idol" has slipped a worrying 9 percent in the ratings this year, according to the Nielsen Co., and the show has lost more than one-fifth of its audience since its peak in 2006. Critics have spent much of this spring harping on a crop of finalists that was widely deemed uninspiring, with few moments of spontaneity outside of would-be contestant Larry Platt's rap, "Pants on the Ground," which came during the early audition phase.
"I don't get the sense it was as exciting a season as mine or as others have been," Anoop Desai, a Season 8 finalist who just released his first album, said in an interview. "It's lacked the oomph it's had in seasons past."
And there's more trouble on the horizon. Lead judge Simon Cowell is fleeing to bring Fox his own show next year, the British hit "The X Factor," though rumors fly that producers are talking about Cowell retaining some sort of on-air role with "Idol." Although plenty of names have been bandied about — Harry Connick Jr., Jamie Foxx, Elton John — producers have been mum about who will replace him.
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"I don't think anyone can replace Simon; he became the Capt. Kirk of the show," said veteran reality TV producer Scott Sternberg, who is not connected to "Idol." "Whoever they bring in is not going to be what he is. They're going to have to find their way." It's possible the producers could even decide not to replace Cowell at all and see what happens by returning to a three-judge format, he added.
For their part, the show's producers and Fox executives aren't about to show their hands. A spokesman for Fremantle Media and 19 Entertainment, the companies behind the show, said a producer was unavailable to comment for this story.
In a phone call with reporters last week before Fox's unveiling of its fall schedule, Fox broadcasting chief Peter Rice said that the network will soon begin discussing format changes with the show's producers. But Rice batted aside worries about "Idol's" long-term viability. "The wonderful thing about the show is that we get a new cast every year," he said.
Many viewers were less than thrilled with this year's finalists, however. Ratings at first followed the typical "Idol" pattern of a big premiere, followed by a midseason plateau. But in a surprise twist, the program didn't see its usual late-inning ratings bounce — in fact, after the Top 10 were selected, "Idol" sank to some of its lowest numbers in years. The May 4 performance show, dedicated to the music of Frank Sinatra, slumped to just 17.5 million viewers, far below the season average of 24.9 million.