'American Idol': Can Show Go On Without Simon Cowell?

American IdolCourtesy Fox/Michael Becker
Randy Jackson, Ellen Degeneres, Simon Cowell, Ryan Seacrest and Kara DioGuard are shown in this file photo.

"American Idol" starts its ninth season tonight, and everything is up for grabs.

Simon Cowell is leaving after this year. Paula Abdul already left, to be replaced by comedian Ellen DeGeneres.

Cowell announced Monday that this season of "Idol" will be his last, so that he can focus on launching the American version of "The X Factor," which Fox has picked up for the fall 2011 season when "Idol" is on hiatus. Cowell will serve as judge and executive producer for the show.

VIDEO: Simon Cowell announces that hes leaving American Idol.Play

And, according to The Wall Street Journal's John Farley, just like "Idol," "X-Factor" will allow Cowell to act as nasty as he wants.

"If you've seen 'X-Factor,' it's almost exactly like 'Idol,'" Farley said today on "Good Morning America." "He's still there, judging people, putting people down, raising other people up. Simon Cowell is not leaving the format. He will be front and center in American pop culture."

But still, how will "Idol" viewers take to the musical chairs game going on with the judges? Losing Abdul was one thing -- but now Cowell? He is arguably the dominant presence at the judges' table. Does this mean that DeGeneres -- who, incidentally, won't appear on the show until the "Hollywood Round" in early February, has to be the mean one next year? Someone needs to fill the void.

VIDEO: Adam Lambert: No Regrets After AMAsPlay

And there are other questions. "American Idol" is supposed to be a musical contest, but viewers and former contestants complain that it doesn't always work as one. Many of them say the often-controversial voting process that decides the winner needs to be updated.

"I'd be very surprised if they altered anything," MJ Santilli, who writes about "Idol" on her blog MJsBigBlog.com, told ABCNews.com. "The more people vote, the more money they make for their sponsor. As far as cutting down how many times people can vote or text vote, I don't see that happening."

Santilli does think last season's controversial voting parties for winner Kris Allen could result in "a set of rules that weren't there before."

Fox did not respond to ABCNews.com's request for comment.

Last May, fans of runner-up Adam Lambert complained that rules were broken when representatives of "Idol" sponsor AT&T provided free phones and texting lessons at two watch parties organized in Allen's hometown in Arkansas. "Idol" stood by the final result, saying no individuals unfairly influenced the total, but refused to make vote totals public.

Santilli does not foresee "Idol" ever releasing vote tallies. The British version of Cowell's "X Factor" does.

"They don't want to show you the wizard of Oz," Santilli said about the "Idol" vote totals. "It would show their manipulation. It they had shown the voter breakdown at the end of season five, you would have seen that Chris Daughtry was not in front, even if they were trying to give you the impression that he was winning every week."

'American Idol': The Vote for the Winner

Daughtry came in fourth that season, while Taylor Hicks went on to win the competition.

One show insider questions whether the producers are even able to accurately gauge the winner.

"It's just too massive," Justin Buckles, a former production assistant and production coordinator, told ABCNews.com. "How can all that be monitored, especially when the decision of who the winner is, is so close? It makes me wonder if the wrong people have won in seasons past."

Controversies aside, Santilli believes voting still matters. "I don't think fans will ever stop voting," she said. "It's so emotional. When you're in the moment, you're just trying to get your person to the next week."

Who wins, however, seems to matter less and less.

Ever since Hicks won and Daughtry came in fourth in season five, Santilli said the message has been that you don't have to win to be a star.

"You can have a fairly successful music career without winning," she said, singling out Daughtry, who's debut album sold more than 4 million copies and was Billboard's number-one selling album in 2007.

Outsold by Daughtry, Hicks was dropped from the Arista label after earning the distinction of having the lowest-selling album of any "Idol" winner.

After last season, it was Lambert's career that eclipsed Allen's. Lambert has grabbed more headlines and sold more records.

"It's never been about records," Ju'Not Joyner, a top 20 finalist from last season, told ABCNews.com. "It's about the show and ad revenue."

During a live chat on a fan Web site in July, Joyner said Allen's victory on the show was rigged.

"The producers know who they want and they slant it to reflect that," Joyner said. "They fix it in a way that makes you surprised but it's still manipulated. Think about it: Adam, Adam, Adam, then... Kris. Surprise!"

Joyner, who is working on his debut album, titled "I Am," said the producers manipulate the audience by spotlighting certain contestants.

'American Idol': Do Viewers' Votes Matter?

"They airbrush certain pictures," Joyner said. "Certain people are made to look a certain way. Lights and camera angles are saved for the end of the show. That's how they create a TV star."

Buckles, whose novel, "Stage 46: The Reality of Reality Television," is loosely based on his experiences working on "Idol," confirms Joyner's suspicions.

"You can clearly see in shows and comments by the judges that they have their favorites without question," he said. "Producers will focus more on this or that contestant. They'll say it's an amateur show and everyone is treated fairly but I believe they have their favorites going in and they try to sway the viewing public."

For now, all the controversy seems to play in the show's favor and keep the public tuning in. Despite declining ratings for the third year in a row, "Idol" remains the No. 1 show on television.

But there are plenty of other questions, such as how DeGeneres will mesh with the other judges and whether Cowell's departure will spell the end of "Idol." They make the question of who will win and how they're chosen less and less relevant.