"American Idol" returns, but how long can it last?

Thu Jan 7, 2010 2:28pm EST
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By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - TV ratings juggernaut "American Idol" returns next week for a 9th season with comedian Ellen DeGeneres joining the judging panel but a big question mark hanging over the future of the show's biggest star -- Simon Cowell.

Despite slipping ratings for the past three years, the singing contest is expected to remain the jewel in the Fox network's crown as the most-watched show on U.S. television and the birthplace of the next potential moneymaker for the struggling record industry.

Rampant rumors, neither confirmed nor denied, that abrasive British judge Cowell will bow out when his contract ends in May, the replacement of Paula Abdul with DeGeneres, and a gaggle of star guest judges will likely boost interest for the two-hour premiere on Tuesday, January 12, industry watchers say.

But after the initial shows -- and after seven years of earning top dollar from advertisers, a No. 1 ranking from audiences and the envy of rival networks -- "American Idol" faces a critical year.

Audiences slipped to an average 26.3 million viewers per each twice-weekly episode in 2009 from a 2006 high of about 30.8 million, and "Idol" advertising sales fell in 2009 to $858.6 million from $903.3 million in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

"It is rare to see any pop culture phenomenon sustain that kind of momentum and those kind of ratings year in and year out. So it is natural to ask when the bubble will burst," said Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak.

"I don't think we are quite there yet. The show could take a ratings hit and still be top of the heap. No matter where 'Idol' comes in, I'm sure the numbers will be the envy of all of Fox's competitors," Slezak said.

BRING ON ELLEN   Continued...

<p>"American Idol" judge Simon Cowell in a file photo. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>