'American Idol' Ratings Are At Their Lowest Since 2004, And Simon Cowell Is Moving On. As The Season-Nine Finale Approaches, Can TV's Talent Show Behemoth Stay Dominant And Turn Its Winners Into Stars Again?
"Alright, so listen, man. I don't know what's quite going on...it was just alright for me. It didn't really take off, ever, and it started kind of rough. I don't know."
Randy Jackson said this on the May 11 episode of "American Idol," after Michael Lynche -- the hulking, 26-year-old singer known as "Big Mike" -- performed a serviceable but charm-devoid take on Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There." (Voters sent Lynche packing a day later.) He could've been referring to any recent night of "American Idol," though -- or its entire run this year.
Since its Jan. 12 premiere on Fox, the ninth season of "Idol" has been plagued with chatter about the show's decline. The pool of contestants was widely considered to be the weakest in the show's vaunted history, with the top 10 finalists, who will perform together on this summer's American Idol Live! tour, comprising a bizarre mix of pop/R&B singers with identity crises and guitar-strumming "street busker" types, as Simon Cowell likes to call them. The remaining two hopefuls -- Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox -- are both of the latter strain, and one will emerge as the winner on the May 26 season finale.
The fractured chemistry among the judges has also dominated water-cooler talk. Paula Abdul -- the show's centripetal force of schmaltz and drama -- left the show, ostensibly replaced by Ellen DeGeneres. Moreover, two days before the season premiere, Cowell announced he'd be leaving "Idol" after the conclusion of season nine, and many onlookers have observed that he has appeared disinterested this year, even bored. (Cowell stands to make millions more next fall when "The X Factor," the fork-tongued U.K. counterpart to "Idol" that he executive-produces, hits U.S. shores on Fox.)
"Everyone is trying, but it's just not connecting," says Maura Johnston, who writes about "Idol" for Fancast.com. "And Simon Cowell is so linked with the whole franchise. He is 'American Idol,' more than [host Ryan] Seacrest, more than anyone. The fact that he's leaving, I think, has affected the perception of the show."