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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The stunning choice of comedian and chat show host Ellen DeGeneres as the new judge on TV show "American Idol" appeared set to revive interest in the top-rated talent show after three years of falling ratings.
DeGeneres, one of the most popular TV chat show hosts in the United States, will replace Paula Abdul in the four-person panel when the competition returns for a ninth season in January on the Fox network.
DeGeneres, who has no musical background but says she is an avid fan of the show, told "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest on Thursday that she would be the people's voice on the panel.
"I'm just a fan like everyone else," she told Seacrest in an interview on his Los Angeles morning radio show. "The people choose. Ultimately it comes down to them, not some executive in the music industry. I hope to be that voice."
Mike Darnell, president of alternative entertainment for Fox, said producers felt that "her vast entertainment experience -- combined with her quick wit and passion for music -- will add a fresh new energy to the show."
The move, just five weeks after the volatile Abdul quit abruptly after failing to get a big pay raise, sent shockwaves through fans and media watchers.
"My first reaction was: surprise, bogglement and skepticism," wrote Time magazine's TV correspondent James Poniewozik. "Which honestly, probably means that it's an excellent choice, at least from the standpoint of getting viewers."
"American Idol," which has produced multi-platinum artists like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, has been the most popular TV show in America for six years and is also broadcast in more than 100 nations overseas.
But U.S. audiences have slipped to an average 26.3 million viewers per twice weekly episode from a 2006 high of about 30.8 million.
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak acknowledged that the addition of DeGeneres had created a huge buzz. But he called the move "a big risk" on the part of producers given the comedian's lackluster appearance as a guest judge on Fox's sister TV reality show "So You Think You Can Dance" earlier this year.
"I certainly think there will be a short-term ratings gain having a big A-list star like Ellen in the mix," Slezak told Reuters.
"I can understand why producers are thinking, 'let's keep it fresh,' because you want to create that excitement. But if Ellen turns out to be as lethal as she was on that one episode of 'So You Think You Can Dance,' I think it could really hurt the show."
Fans were divided over the addition of DeGeneres. According to a poll on AOL's pop culture site Popeater.com, just 45 percent of respondents thought DeGeneres was a good replacement for Abdul.
"I enjoy Ellen's daytime show, but come on. A judge?? She doesn't have a musical background.... BRING BACK PAULA and get AI back to the fabulous show it was in the beginning!!!!" wrote amyldawson on the Americanidol.com comment board.
Some fans said DeGeneres, a lesbian who married her actress partner Portia De Rossi last year, was a turn-off.
"This is one of those shows that brought families together every year. You just lost our family of 7. We don't agree with her lifestyle so our family will be no part of American Idol!!" wrote mnapeterson22 on the Americanidol.com web site.
Editing by Vicki Allen