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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The finale of "American Idol" drew its smallest audience since 2002 after a lackluster season that saw America's most-watched show lose its biggest star and posed challenges over how to recapture its sparkle.
An estimated 24.2 million viewers tuned in to the Fox network on Wednesday evening to watch Lee DeWyze beat Crystal Bowersox, and to bid farewell to British judge Simon Cowell -- an 18 percent drop from last year, according to preliminary ratings figures on Thursday.
The nine-year-old TV singing contest was the No.1 U.S. show of the night and has retained its top rating this season for the 7th consecutive year. But audiences were down nine percent this season to an average 23.9 million, compared to a 2006 high of about 30.8 million.
Fox entertainment chairman Peter Rice told reporters earlier this month that there was "no bigger question this summer" for the network than the replacement of Cowell.
The acid-tongued British judge has quit to launch his own show on Fox in 2011, saying he was bored after nine years on "Idol."
Cowell is not alone when it comes to "Idol" fatigue. Media watchers say Fox, a unit of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, and "Idol" producers need bigger fixes if the show is to recapture its buzz and retain its fans.
"If they are smart, they will look at this as a way to re-boot the show from top to bottom, starting with the auditions, which were once funny, to the weekly themes like Elvis and the Beatles, which are getting stale," Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak told Reuters.
The addition of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres as a judge earlier this year was widely seen as a disappointment.
"Ellen was really dull. After that casting disaster, the Simon replacement is a pretty important one," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
DeGeneres signed a five-year contract with "Idol" and judges Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi have contracts that take them into 2011. But some "Idol" watchers think the entire panel should be thrown out.
"I would be really tempted to clean house on the panel and freshen the show up so much you would have to tune in because you know the dynamic would be so different," said USA Today music writer Brian Mansfield.
"I think they will be in real trouble if they succumb to the temptation to bring in another celebrity judge," he added.
Fox has already announced some tweaks to the 10th season, which starts airing in January 2011. The hour-long weekly results show will be cut by half, while contestants will get an extra 30 minutes in later stages of the contest to perform.
Aspiring singers can audition on MySpace for the first time in addition to try-outs before the judges in U.S. cities nationwide this summer, Fox said on Wednesday.
"American Idol" creator Simon Fuller believes the format has life in it yet. "I think 'American Idol' will continue for a few more years for sure...It has had a fantastic run, so I am not complaining," Fuller told Reuters earlier this month.
And Thompson said that although the show has a lot of problems to overcome, "'American Idol' performing mediocre is better than most series at their best, which is why I think it is probably going to be around for a while. It just may not continue to be No.1 every week."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte