Denise Neil

Judges take center stage as 'American Idol' returns

Just when I was starting to grow utterly despondent about the blank slate that is my DVR (and with "Lost" still a month away!) I realized something this week.

"American Idol" is just days away from returning for its ninth season.

The popular singing competition will begin its traditional run of audition shows starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday and continuing at 7 p.m. Wednesday on Fox, cable channel 4.

The first of the two audition shows — which always feature a mix of unhinged off-key wannabes and genuinely talented, against-the-odds future finalists — was shot in Boston. Wednesday's show will include footage from Atlanta auditions.

But the audition shows are old news. The headlines from the latest season — which critics will be closely studying to see if "Idol" is losing its ratings mojo — are all judge-related.

Paula Abdul is out, and new judge Ellen DeGeneres is in — an idea I'm still trying to wrap my mind around. Studying a publicity photo of all the judges and host Ryan Seacrest earlier this week, I was overcome with a "one of these things is not like the other" feeling.

Not that the current "Idol" judges aren't famous, but Ellen just seems... out of their league. She's a superstar. What's she doing on a panel with Kara What's-Her-Name?

Many hard-core fans aren't singing with joy over the Ellen addition, either, but mainly because they're unhappy about the absence of head cheerleader Abdul.

Despite the oddness of it all, I still say Ellen's self-deprecating yet sharp-tongued humor will spice things up. It'll be worth tuning in just to see how Simon Cowell handles her. And vice versa.

The other big judge news — this may be Simon's last season. His contract is set to expire, and the rumor mill is rife with stories that Simon will leave the show after this season to work on an American version of his British hit "The X-Factor," which would be a direct competitor with "Idol."

"Idol" producers, in an attempt to capture more young viewers in the face of all this judge upheaval, are said to be looking for more edgy, unusual contestants in the vein of last season's Adam Lambert.

And they'll return to the boy-girl format from a few seasons ago in which the girls sing together, the boys sing together, and one from each group is eliminated until the field is whittled down to 12.

Oh, and they're bringing back "Idol Gives Back." Please wake me when this Musical Festival of Earnestness is over.

Following is a peek at how this season will unfold:

* Audition shows air on Tuesday and Wednesday and on Jan. 19-20, Jan. 26-27 and Feb. 2.

* Hollywood Rounds, in which the yellow ticket holders start to get pared down, air on Feb. 3, Feb. 9-10, and Feb. 16-17. The top 24 semifinalists will be announced on Feb. 17.

* Top 12 female semifinalists perform on Feb. 23.

* Top 12 male semifinalists perform on Feb. 24.

* First results show, in which two male and two female contestants will be eliminated, is on Feb. 25.

* Top 12 finalists will be revealed on March 11.

* " Idol Gives Back" charity show will air on April 21.