As negotiations for new 'American Idol' judges drag on, Fox's risks increase
Remember in college when you'd wait until the last minute to crank out a term paper even though the assignment had been given to you months earlier?That appears to be the approach Fox and the producers of "American Idol" -- 19 Entertainment and FremantleMedia -- are taking when it comes to overhauling the nation's No.1 television show. After all, it was no secret that there were going to be big holes to fill on the program. Simon Cowell announced last January that he was leaving as the head judge of "American Idol" to launch a U.S. version of his hit UK show "The X Factor." Then the network said goodbye to Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi.
Now, with the first round of auditions for the new season of "American Idol" closing in on Los Angeles on Sept. 22, there are still no new judges for the show. To be sure, the judges traditionally don't take part in these early auditions. The purpose of the early auditions is to find the very best and the very worst for later auditions that the judges do evaluate. However, Ryan Seacrest and top producers are on hand.
But those auditions are starting soon and while Steven Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, has wrapped up his deal, according to people close to the show and the singer, the producers and Fox are still trying to close a deal with singer Jennifer Lopez. Let's hope there is a lot of natural chemistry between Lopez and Tyler because the two certainly won't have any time to develop some before the cameras start rolling.
Last season, when Paula Abdul quit unexpectedly shortly before the judge's rounds began, Cowell, DioGuardi and Randy Jackson hit the road with a slew of guest judges to pick the season's semi-finalists. DeGeneres joined them in Hollywood to select the finalists that would move on to the live shows. But, because of Cowell's glaring absence on the judge's table next season, Fox executives have told the Los Angeles Times they want to begin the narrowing down of contestants with a panel in place. It would be an understatement to say Fox has a lot riding on "American Idol's" next act. Though the show's ratings have fallen over the last few years, it is still a huge cash cow for the network. Furthermore, the parent of 19 Entertainment, CKX Inc., has been fielding offers from would-be suitors and any damage to its biggest asset will likely diminish its value.
Fox executives have been very mum about their plans for "American Idol" and why it is taking so long to lock in new judges. The Times reported at the end of July that negotiations with Lopez were dragging because the singer/actress wanted a big overall deal that included the possibility of movies and television shows. Fox has balked on that but apparently the two sides are near an accord. Deadline Hollywood said Sunday Lopez would strike a deal worth about $12 million a year. One can argue that since the show doesn't return until January and the audition process doesn't heat up for a few more weeks, there is no rush. "American Idol" is far too important a franchise to worry about what the public perception is about the search for new judges as Fox has one shot to get this right. Still, the longer it drags on, the more likely people lose interest. The element of surprise is gone and the public may be tired of this whole saga by now.
Then there are the potential judges themselves. Cowell had the benefit of being an unknown when "American Idol" started. Now, though, Fox doesn't want to risk putting a no-name behind the wheel of its key franchise and seems determined to get the biggest names it can find.
That sounds like a reasonable strategy, but remember that numbers will go down regardless of who replaces Cowell. The risk of tapping big names is that the thud will be that much louder.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Last season's version of "American Idol" with, from left, Cowell, DeGeneres, DioGuardi and Jackson. Credit: Michael Becker / Associated Press.