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As 'American Idol' swaps hosts, will audiences stay loyal?

'American Idol' returns just one original judge next season. The search for replacements has media watchers wondering if the show can survive.

By Staff writer / July 30, 2010

Jennifer Lopez, shown here at the the Apollo Theater in New York in June, will reportedly replace the departing Ellen DeGeneres as a judge on 'American Idol.'

Natalie Behring/Reuters

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Los Angeles

While the team behind Fox’s "American Idol” plays musical chairs with the judges and possibly other elements of the show’s formats, everyone from industry observers to TV experts and branding pros are casting votes for what direction the iconic show should take.

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Fox has yet to open phone lines for advice, but recommendations from critics and armchair amateurs include everything from more, fewer, or non-professional judges, expanding the age pool (again – the show just lowered the entry age to 15 this summer) and taking on a more charitable bent.

"It may be just a TV show, but some matter more than others," says media strategist Don Tanner, who says the show should go on, even with sweeping changes.

"Perhaps the greatest legacy of 'American Idol' has been its ability to bridge generational demographics and emerge as a true mass medium in an era of segmentation,” says Mr. Tanner via email.

The show harkens back to the "Ed Sullivan Show" from the '60s, where every Sunday night the vast majority of the country was tuning in. Few shows can match that standard, he says. In past decades, only "one-offs," such as the final episodes of "MASH" and "Cheers" – and sporting events such as the Super Bowl – could boast such vast viewing numbers. “In that way, it has been a true phenomenon unlike TV has ever seen,” he says.

As for the nettlesome questions of who should fill the escalating judges’ seat vacancies, Jennifer Lopez is reportedly signed up to replace the departing Ellen DeGeneres, whose career demands have made a place in the "Idol” universe untenable.

But legitimacy is the most important criterion for the seat vacated by Simon Cowell, says Yahoo! TV web trends analyst Vera Chan. “He was the voice of truth, the reality check for the show, the one that gave an air of viability to the show,” she says.

That profile is important, and she points to such possible candidates as hip-hop mogul Sean Combs. “It will take someone of that stature to give the show some anchor,” she points out.

As for whether the show can survive a large-scale overhaul, she says Americans have not tired of the fundamental narrative embodied by “American Idol.”

“We love our Cinderella stories and American Idol was the real thing, not one of these orchestrated events that a lot of the reality shows that came after it have become. This really is where dreams come true,” she says.

Idol worship may have taken a hit with its sagging ratings and confusion over its future, says Hollywood insider Joshua Estrin, especially with Randy Jackson as the only surviving original judge on the panel next season.

But he suggests a full show makeover could be just what the 10-year-old program needs. He points to “So You Think You Can Dance," also on Fox, as a show that has embraced shaking things up.

"It is family friendly, fun, and makes dreams a reality in a time when many are questioning where the next paycheck is coming from," he says. "In the end, all of the above are reasons to make it work – or 'rework.' "

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