LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Paula Abdul's departure from "American Idol" leaves the TV talent show without the judge who became a fan favorite for saying nice things about bad performers, and industry watchers expect viewership of the top-rated U.S. program to keep slipping.
Abdul sought a pay raise and was in contract negotiations with the show's producers and the Fox network that airs "Idol" when talks broke down on Tuesday and she announced on social networking website Twitter that she would leave the show.
If her departure hurts ratings for the program, Fox could find itself with fewer advertising revenues for the TV singing contest that, for its makers, has become a $1 billion-plus brand.
When "Idol" was launched in 2002, it boasted 1980s pop star Abdul as its best-known judge, along with music producer Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell, a sharp-tongued British export and music industry executive.
Over the years, winners like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood gained pop music stardom, and Cowell's popularity rose. Abdul often sparred verbally with him on air, between her effusive stream-of-consciousness praise to contestants.
"She'll be remembered for not making sense on a number of occasions. She'll be remembered as part of a dysfunctional family that we've all come to love," said Nigel Lythgoe, a former executive producer of "Idol."
In a poll from AOL website PopEater.com, 74 percent of the 30,000 respondents said "Idol" would be worse without Abdul.
Lythgoe, who is no longer involved with "Idol," said he expected the show to survive nicely due to its focus on contestants -- not the judges.
Still, some industry trackers said Abdul's departure would likely hit viewership that, in recent years, has been sliding even as "Idol" retained its No. 1 status on U.S. TV.
"The ratings are going to be hurt, (but) it's going to be tough to say how much of it is because of her," said Brad Adgate, an executive at advertising agency Horizon Media.
"The show peaked after its fifth season and now we're going into season nine, and while it's still watched by 25 million-plus viewers we've seen some viewer fatigue," he said.
James Poniewozik, a critic for Time magazine said 'Idol' producers were making a mistake if they believed the real stars were the contestants and the show was immune from a downfall. He said Abdul's departure "doesn't leave much reason for the ratings to go up."
This past season, "Idol" added a fourth judge in songwriter Kara DioGuardi to spice up the show, but the expansion became the subject of criticism from Cowell and Abdul, who said four panelists slowed the program's pace.
On Monday, producers said DioGuardi was coming back for another year, but did not disclose terms of her deal.
Cowell earns an estimated $36 million a season in a contract that takes him through next year. "Idol" producers re-signed host Ryan Seacrest to a three-year deal giving him about $15 million annually, tripling his past salary and involving provisions beyond his role on the show.
Abdul's total pay package nears the $4 million mark, according to media reports, and she was offered a deal 30 percent higher than her current pay.
Still, there may be career beyond "Idol" for the singer. Lythgoe said he planned to meet with her this weekend to talk about a possible role on his Fox reality show "So You Think You Can Dance."
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Peter Cooney