Jan. 17, 2012 at 11:02 PM ET
“American Idol” is hours away from starting its 11th season, undoubtedly by finding some rags-to-riches auditioner who starts the year off on a hopeful note. But while that may be a no-brainer, there’s a lot that’s uncertain about this season. Here are five key questions that the show will have to answer.
1. What is Ryan Seacrest’s future?
With the all-star host’s contract expiring after this season, this could wind up being a yearlong distraction similar to what "Idol" endured in Simon Cowell’s season nine swan song. I’ve already written my take: I’d pay whatever it cost to keep him. Of course, it’s not my money. In any case, Ryan seems unlikely to mail in his lines as obviously as Simon did when he was a lame-duck judge, but this has the potential to overshadow everything else that happens this year.
2. Can the judges avoid the sophomore slump?
Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler gave "Idol: a badly needed boost of energy and buzz when they arrived a year ago. But “Idol” also caught some breaks here, getting J.Lo as she was about to be named People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person, and Steven when he stayed in the news because of his autobiography. This year will tell whether that energy is sustainable. If not, the combination of these two and Randy Jackson are just an ordinary trio that would praise a ham sandwich if it somehow found itself in the final dozen singers.
3. Will there be a fatigue factor?
There are approximately one zillion other singing shows out there that pretty much nobody cares about, but NBC’s “The Voice” will be the first credible threat brought on as an in-season challenger. The competition is more hype than reality for now -- take a straw poll of your fellow TV watchers and see how many remember who last season’s winner of “The Voice” was if you doubt that -- but it’ll be interesting to compare the audiences when “Idol’s” newest rival starts with a post-Super Bowl boost in February.
4. What does a girl have to do to win this thing?
It may be hard to believe, but women won three of the first four “American Idol” seasons. But since Jordin Sparks took the crown in season six, it’s been all guys, all the time. Last season a lot of the pre-show hype was about how great the girls were, but the low tones of Scotty McCreery gave the men their fourth win in a row. A tip for the judges this season: Instead of spending the save early, try keeping it in reserve in case this year features another Pia Toscano getting blindsided.
5. Has this show become an unstoppable American tradition?
It’s been 11 years since Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, along with the biting sarcasm of Simon Cowell, made “American Idol” a ratings hit for Fox. It’s survived Simon’s exit, Paula Abdul’s departure, the ill-fated Kara DioGuardi/Ellen DeGeneres era and William Hung. This has become a show that people watch out of habit regardless of the quality of the performers. If it can continue to be reality TV’s version of motherhood and apple pie, “Idol” should be in great shape for years to come.
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