How long can the dominant but aging "American Idol" keep hitting the high notes?
Television's top-rated series opens Season 8 Tuesday (Fox, 8 ET/PT) with its hugely popular auditions while trying to freshen a format now well into the TV version of middle age.
Although "Idol" is expected to easily maintain its No. 1 status, last season's ratings drop was its biggest yet, Season 7 champ David Cook hasn't ignited the charts, and some wonder how long a devoted fan base will remain loyal in a medium as fickle as television.
To stem "Idol" fatigue, the show has made changes: a fourth judge, Grammy-nominated songwriter Kara DioGuardi; an extra week of Hollywood rounds with the return of group performances; and a larger semifinalist field along with reinstatement of the judges' wild-card picks.
Fox Networks Group CEO Tony Vinciquerra, speaking at a media business conference on Wednesday, said he hopes that Idol finds singers with more personality than last year's batch and that initial talent reports are good. He said the show also plans changes to what he called "very boring" top-12 results shows.
Simon Cowell, "Idol's" severest judge, suggested that tweaks such as the wild cards should make it easier to assemble an intriguing field of singers, the key to audience engagement and an area he also found wanting last season.
"Too many people on the show were like professional reality-show contestants … which made it a little frustrating," he says. "I like all shapes and sizes in the final 12, and I think this year we will have a more interesting and eclectic bunch of people."
Idol also faces stronger competition this year. "NCIS" and "Biggest Loser," its Tuesday rivals, are among the few shows with audience growth this season. And the median age of Idol's audience is up 11 years (from 32 to 43) since its 2002 premiere, says Brad Adgate of ad firm Horizon Media.
Despite the challenges, "Idol" is hardly in midlife-crisis mode. Last year's ratings decline of about 7% (28.2 million) was smaller than the drop in broadcast network viewership; the Tuesday and Wednesday shows each topped No. 3 "Dancing With the Stars" by more than 6 million viewers, and it was even more dominant with the young adults (18 to 49) prized by advertisers.
"My personal opinion is it'll be a carbon copy of last year. Once again, it will be the top-rated show and will help Fox be the top network in 18-to-49," Adgate says. "Since it's another year older and has some stronger competition, my guess is the ratings will continue to decline."
Some viewer loss is expected in an eighth-season show, executive producer Ken Warwick says, but huge changes aren't needed to maintain popularity. "The truth is, if you're successful after (seven) seasons, you're not doing too much wrong."
After three weeks of auditions, well over 100 surviving singers move to the Hollywood round, which begins Feb. 3. The judges' 36 top picks move to the semifinals (starting Feb. 17), with viewers and the judges choosing 12 for the finals (March 10).
Assessing the season's performers will have to wait, but it's not too early to get perspective, both inside and out, on the changes producers hope will add energy, and some adjustments others would like to see.
The fourth judge
Stop the presses! Cowell for once can't make up his mind.