‘American Idol’ in disarray

Amid a storm of personnel and producing changes, “American Idol” has been thrown into chaos, with the fate of the nation’s No. 1 show hanging in the balance.

Ellen DeGeneres’ abrupt exit Thursday after just one season as a judge touched off a flurry of speculation accompanying the expected return of executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. Currently a judge on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” Lythgoe has said that “Idol” needs an overhaul after serious ratings erosion this past season, the last for the show’s longtime star, Simon Cowell, a British music executive known for his tart and often devastating appraisals of contestants. Reports said that Jennifer Lopez has been hired as a judge and Kara DioGuardi has been axed, although neither Fox nor the producers had confirmed this by midday Friday.

The rehab project is unprecedented for a program still at the top of the ratings heap and is especially momentous for “Idol,” which since its 2002 debut has transformed the broadcast TV business. The show rocketed Fox to the top of the ratings race, foiled competitors who watched it flatten their rival midweek offerings and silenced alarmists who believed that cable and the Internet had rendered the traditional networks irrelevant.

“Whatever happens, it will be a different show,” Katherine Meizel, a musicologist who has written about “Idol” for the online magazine Slate, wrote in an e-mail. “Without Simon, all bets are off and the need for that particular form of dramatic tension is up in the air.”

The decision to revamp the program is an indication of what’s at stake for the network, producers Fremantle Media and 19 Entertainment and the overall franchise. Fox has reaped more than $800 million in annual ad revenue from “Idol” for the past several years, according to research firm Kanter Media. But the show is losing its once-unshakable grip on American pop culture, especially after the past season, which was widely criticized for lackluster contestants and a desultory performance from the quartet of judges.

An average of 24.9 million adults tuned in to the Tuesday shows for Season 9, a 20% slide from the 31.2 million for the peak season of 2006, according to the Nielsen Co. Ratings for the Wednesday results show this year slipped 14% in the all-important category of adults aged 18 to 49, which are most coveted by advertisers.

Partly in an effort to reconnect with young people, the producers last month lowered the minimum age for contestants by one year, to 15.

Fox has avoided commenting publicly on the “Idol” changes in recent days, although it may not have that option for much longer. On Monday, network officials are due to appear before reporters at the TV press tour in Beverly Hills, where they are certain to be peppered with questions about “Idol.” Some sort of announcement is expected, even if it is only to confirm a return to the helm for Lythgoe, who departed two years ago after repeated clashes with Cowell.

Moreover, executives need to have the new judges set by September, when auditions will be filmed for the new season, which is slated to begin airing in January.

A senior Fox executive conceded that the “Idol” reclamation project will “take some wrestling.” When it presented its fall schedule to advertisers in New York in May, Peter Rice, entertainment chairman of the Fox Networks Group, indicated the network had no higher priority this summer than rethinking “Idol.”

Analysts say that reinvention is in order.

“As a show ages, you have to look at the formula and say, ‘Is it working?’” said Brent Poer, senior vice president at MediaVest USA, an advertising firm, whose clients include Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble. “This is bolstering the franchise to ensure it maintains its ground.” He added that while Lopez could be a good addition, the real challenge will be to replace Cowell, who had an uncanny knack for crystallizing — and, based on voting trends, sometimes swaying — viewer opinion.

“It is a very hard line that Simon walked: As well-liked, but also as the person who could really have a harsh, black-and-white opinion,” Poer said.

Now, with Cowell leaving “Idol” for “The X Factor,” another musical talent show debuting on Fox in 2011, real doubts about the former show’s long-term viability are starting to emerge. Fox executives have insisted that the shows can coexist on the same network, especially since “X Factor” seems headed for a fall debut that would avoid “Idol’s” traditional midwinter run.

While landing a star on the magnitude of Jennifer Lopez would lend plenty of free publicity for “Idol,” it will also be costly. Cowell was making around $35 million a season, according to sources familiar with his deal. If producers spend large sums to secure an all-star judging table to replace him, “Idol” will need to maintain its huge ratings advantages or the economics driving the show may begin not to make sense.

Of course, even if ratings for “American Idol” were to lose another fifth of its audience this coming season, it would still be a huge hit by today’s TV standards — an observation Fox executives are fond of repeating. No matter what the producers decide in the next few days, their show is not likely to slide to flop status in Season 10.

“Nothing they do is going to really throw it into a spiral that would change its position as No. 1 show on TV,” Poer said.

Staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.