Fox faces uncertainty over fate of "Idol" judges

Fri Apr 24, 2009 5:35pm EDT
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By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fox television this week faced an uncomfortable future when the two biggest stars on its No. 1-rated show "American Idol" openly discussed leaving, which experts said could send viewership plummeting in future seasons.

Paula Abdul, whose quirky behavior has been a hot topic for years, told ABC News program "Nightline" that her contract ends after this season. And acid-tongued Simon Cowell, whom critics call the show's real star, gave several interviews in which he contemplated an exit when his deal ends next year.

"You take out one person like Paula or Simon, (and) you're affecting every other player in this grid," said Time magazine television critic James Poniewozik. "They're a family, a dysfunctional family, and it's tough to mess with that."

At risk for the Fox Broadcasting Co., which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp are millions of dollars in annual advertising revenue that would be lost if viewers tune out following a departure by Cowell or Abdul.

The pair are the most talked-about judges on the four-person panel that critiques performances of pop star wannabes competing to be the next "American Idol" and win a recording contract. They are joined by Randy Jackson and new judge Kara DioGuardi, as well as show host Ryan Seacrest.

This week, Cowell told the New York Times that when he agreed to his contract through next season, it felt like it would be his last, and he said in The Hollywood Reporter that if "Idol" dropped from No. 1, he would want to leave.

But doing so would likely be a big let-down for fans of the celebrity judge who earns an estimated $36 million a season by often heaping criticism on the program's pop star wannabes.

"He's the villain that people like to cheer against, and also I think people don't give him enough credit for this, he's actually also a really good critic," Poniewozik said.   Continued...

<p>Simon Cowell (L) and Randy Jackson, two of the judges on the American Idol television show arrive for the shows season finale in Los Angeles, California, May 21, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser</p>