NEW YORK — Don't call it "American Idol." Call it "Extreme Makeover: 'Idol' Edition."
The composition of the "Idol" judges' panel seems to be changing by the minute, in flux like a lunch counter during the noon rush.
Everyone but Larry King and Kate Gosselin is rumored as a candidate to replace tart-tongued Simon Cowell (out the door to create his own talent competition), Ellen DeGeneres and who knows who else.
The only guarantees left on "Idol" are off-key contestants, host Ryan Seacrest (peerless as a combination maitre d' and traffic cop) and all those conspicuous glasses of Coke.
Even the ratings — while still gigantic — are no longer on the upswing. The audience for "Idol" has lately been sliding, which, of course, is what the makeover is meant to arrest.
So who will actually populate the judge's panel when "Idol" returns on Fox for its 10th season next January?
An abrupt announcement went out Thursday that DeGeneres was calling it quits. This, after Fox had breathlessly announced signing the popular comedian-talk show host last October to replace dizzy Paula Abdul, a charter "Idol" judge who is planning yet another talent tourney.
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"Idol" wasn't "the right fit," DeGeneres explained, while reports surfaced that singer-dancer-actor Jennifer Lopez is game to see if "Idol" fits her.
Meanwhile, other reports proposed that time had run out for singer-songwriter Kara DioGuardi. Brought on board two seasons ago when the panel of judges was expanded from three to four, she has always seemed no more knowledgeable than she is expendable. (If these were the Marx Brothers, she would be Chico.)
No word on the prospects for affably bland Randy ("dawwwg!") Jackson, who is currently the only remaining original. Who knows? Maybe "Idol" producers will decide to go another way and replace him with Mel Gibson.
But seriously, folks: Other names that continue to be bandied about include pillow-lipped Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and indomitable rocker (and "Celebrity Apprentice" champ) Bret Michaels. But wait, there's more! Justin Timberlake, Jessica Simpson, Elton John, Chris Isaak, Howard Stern and Harry Connick Jr. — they've all been mentioned, too.
Adding to the uncertainty: It is far from clear whether Fox will retain a four-member panel, or trim the number back to three. (Or, as a move to restore some of the show's diminished authority, "Idol" producers might opt to further boost the number of judges to nine, mirroring the U.S. Supreme Court. You heard that here first.)
The truth is likely to be revealed by Monday, when Fox presents its 2010-11 programs to a meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills. Then the world can get a good night's sleep.
While the stars who occupy the judges' table next season won't have quite the juice of, say, Supreme Court justices, nor is the gravity of filling vacancies at the same level, the pressure on "Idol" producers is enormous to pick the right people.
As a financial gold mine and cultural rallying point, "Idol" can hardly be overstated. Now the challenge looms to reinvent and refresh the show whose ninth-season finale drew nearly 5 million viewers less than the year before. (Not that 24.2 million viewers is chicken feed.)
Key to the future dominance of "Idol" is its panel of judges and the chemistry they share. For years, the chemistry was perfect among Cowell, Jackson and Abdul.
Can the "Idol" producers repeat that miracle next season? Or, in trying to fix the show, will they end up breaking it?
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