By Lynn Elber
LOS ANGELES — “American Idol” was the colossus that dominated television in the new century’s first decade, generating top ratings, a heady share of buzz and a handful of bankable stars including Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson.
“THIS is ‘American Idol,’” host Ryan Seacrest first intoned in 2002, and the singing contest that was a summer surprise turned into an annual visitor with staying power.
Whether it can retain its status this year, let alone through the second decade, is a crucial question for its home base, Fox, as well as the network’s competitors and the seemingly bottomless well of aspiring singers who see it as a shortcut to discovery.
It’s a challenge for a series that, entering its ninth season Tuesday (8 p.m.), is undergoing its biggest shake-up yet with Ellen DeGeneres taking the place of Paula Abdul on the judging panel that includes Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and, back for her sophomore turn, Kara DioGuardi.
Can “Idol” hang on as the No. 1 series, a spot it’s held for five years among all viewers and for six years among 18-to-49-year-olds, a demographic much favored by advertisers?
Yes, said industry analyst Shari Anne Brill — for now.
“It will remain the top-rated show through this year,” said Brill, of Carat USA. After that, she said, it’s a guessing game, especially if uber-judge Cowell decides to exit after this season and “Idol” is deprived of his sharp bite (or at least loud bark).
The show’s producers and Fox pay due respect to the judging panel but say what counts most are the “kids,” their favored term for the mostly 20-something contestants angling for a record contract and career, such as last year’s winner Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert.
In focus groups with viewers, it’s about contestants who provoke the most emotion, said Fox executive Preston Beckman, adding, “They want to root for someone and see someone win.”
DeGeneres brings “something unique and will be the nurturing person on the show and create an interesting dynamic with Simon. But at the end of the day, it’s not on her shoulders to carry the show,” he said.
Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of series producer FremantleMedia North America and an “Idol” executive producer, said she’s nothing but bullish on the future.
“Thank God it’s an event, like a sporting event, so it rises above the crowd,” she said.
Its ad rates are a cut above, too: A 30-second commercial on “Idol” cost around $500,000 last season and hit more than $600,000 for the finale, according to the ad-buying firm Initiative, while other top 10 shows were getting closer to about $250,000 for half-minute spots.
A promising sign for “Idol” is the overall broadcast TV picture. After years of steadily losing viewers to cable and other distractions, including the Internet, three of the four major networks (Fox among them) showed an unexpected audience increase over 2008 at the start of the new season.
To be sure, viewership for “American Idol” has been shrinking since its 2005 peak when it averaged 30 million weekly viewers, according to research chief Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. The median age of viewers has shot up, from nearly 32 years old in the first season to about 44 last year.
In a bid for the youth vote, Fox promotions for “American Idol” are emphasizing a “more authentic feeling, raw and emotional,” Beckman said, countering any notion that it’s “lost its soul.”
A guest judge such as Katy Perry represents the kind of artist who appeals to teenagers and young adults, he said. Perry, Victoria Beckham and other celebrities filled in for the departed Abdul for filming of the cross-country auditions that kick off the season.