LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Kris Allen's upset victory over glam rocker Adam Lambert drew the smallest "American Idol" finale audience since 2004, slowing the television ratings juggernaut and posing questions about the future of some of its key players.
Preliminary figures from News Corp's Fox network on Thursday showed an estimated 28.8 million people watched the two-hour finale of the popular TV singing contest on Wednesday, down from 32 million last year.
While still America's most watched TV show, "American Idol" audiences have slipped to an average 26.3 million per twice weekly episode over the five-month broadcast, compared to a 2006 high of about 30.8 million.
The slide came despite producers adding a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, to keep the show fresh. DioGuardi, a songwriter who helped pen the poorly received first single "No Boundaries" for Kris Allen, now must wait to hear whether her one-year contract will be renewed.
Panelist Paula Abdul's contract expires with the end of the current season and often-acerbic British judge Simon Cowell -- arguably the show's biggest asset -- has discussed leaving when his contract is up in May 2010.
Cowell commutes weekly across the Atlantic to run his British-based shows "The X Factor" and "Britain's Got Talent" and has said he would want to leave if "Idol" was toppled from its six-year reign at the top on U.S. television.
An AOL Television poll this week found that 49 percent of "Idol" fans questioned would no longer watch if Cowell leaves.
Contract talks are expected before nationwide summer auditions begin for the next season of "American Idol," which will be broadcast in early 2010.
Fox executives have said they hope all the judges will stay but negotiations will be primarily in the hands of joint producers 19 Entertainment and FremantleMedia.
DioGuardi looks to be most at risk, despite a bikini-strip singing stunt on Wednesday regarded as a finale highlight.
Nigel Lythgoe, a former executive producer with "Idol," said he would never have agreed to four judges.
"Yesterday showed me that they had lost the chemistry," Lythgoe told Reuters. "I miss the slapping and the punching and the 'what the hell did you mean by that?' And even when Paula doesn't make sense, I've got a talking point."
The fourth voice on the panel has squeezed performance times and caused the live show to run over time on occasions.
"The Kara experiment was a disaster," said Michael Slezak, a reporter with Entertainment Weekly, who felt the judges had lost credibility and turned fans off with playful antics that diverted the focus from the contestants.
"The judges, really, it would be nice if they did a little soul searching at the end of the season and maybe found a way to reinvigorate interest in what's going on in front of them," Slezak told Reuters.
The declining ratings for "Idol" reflect a general fall-off in American TV viewing in the past two years, blamed on increased competition from videogames and the Internet.
But the AOL poll found that 70 percent of "Idol" fans are as obsessed with the show as ever. Almost 100 million votes were cast by text and telephone this year -- a record -- by fans choosing between Allen and Lambert in the finale.
The show's viewer-driven format has produced stars such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood and is broadcast live or tape-delayed in more than 100 nations including Pakistan, Israel and South Africa.
Additional reporting by Nichola Groom and Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott