If the goal has changed, it shouldn't come as much of a shock. After all, the average person could be forgiven for not remembering that Hicks, Sparks and even Allen were "Idol" winners. That seems to have permeated the attitude of this season's contestants; Bowersox told reporters two weeks ago that she and her competitors were "all winners," and Lynche said his mission was only to make the top three. The theory that winning "Idol" isn't everything -- put into focus by Hicks' victory in 2006 and sharpened by Lambert's loss to Allen last year -- may have lowered the bar all around.
"We thought we would kill 'Idol,' but it's killing itself," says Dave Della Terza, creator of Vote for the Worst. Della Terza says he's thinking of shuttering the website because covering "Idol" has become "a chore" and, ironically, he says the contestants are too bad. "You need to have great contestants on the show in order for us to work, so that people get angry when their favorites are voted off first," he says. Vote for the Worst has seen its traffic drop from 248,000 unique visitors in April 2009 to 135,000 last month, according to comScore.
Rickey Yaneza of Rickey.org, however, counters that the Tim Urbans, Andrew Garcias and Lacey Browns of this year are hardly different from the Ace Youngs, Megan Joys and Kevin Covaises of seasons past. "There are haters every year," he says, "but I've had people say that they love the singers on the show. They like the idea that so many people are playing the guitar."
Indeed, the presence of so many guitars onstage -- which was introduced in season seven, when "Idol" started allowing contestants to play instruments -- has also shifted the priorities of the show, which now often touts becoming an "artist," not becoming an "idol," as the ultimate goal. It's a small but significant difference in word choice, as the latter beckons a broader fan base and the more traditional, glory-note-belting kind of pop star that the show once championed.
"It's interesting that the advent of letting [the contestants] use instruments has produced a crowd that is kind of cooler, but much less mass appeal-oriented, which is exactly what 'Idol' was invented to circumvent," the Daily Beast's Rushfield says. "Without instruments, you wouldn't have had David Cook, Kris Allen, Jason Castro, Brooke White, Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze."
"The people who made the top three -- Crystal, Lee and Casey [James] -- they're all sort of in the same folk/rock genre, which can't really be by mistake," says Anoop Desai, who finished sixth last season and recently self-released his debut album, "All Is Fair." "But will the music that people voted through on the show be pop music on the radio? It seems like there shouldn't be any disconnect, but as we all know, that isn't necessarily the case."
THE 'S' FACTOR
"Idol," of course, will start all over again next year with a new batch of contestants and the opportunity to find another future star. But it will have to do so without Cowell, who is the only real game-changer in a franchise with so many moving parts. "We have to find a judge to replace Simon who provides both musical credibility and incredible entertainment value," Rice said at the Fox upfront. "There is no bigger question for the summer."
It will also have to contend with "The X Factor" and compete for the loyalties of Sony, which signed a six-year deal with Cowell in January that will allow it to release the music of "X Factor" winners in the United States. Cowell's own label, Syco Music, will be the partner as always.
"Simon is bringing the next most powerful music show in the world to Fox," music executive Charlie Walk says, "and I'd bet on Simon any day. He knows exactly what he is doing."
Replacing Cowell poses a tremendous challenge for 19 and Fox, especially when everyone seems to have an opinion on who should get the job. Such famous "Idol" fans as Howard Stern, Perez Hilton and producer Steve Lillywhite have all publicly lobbied for the gig, while others, like Elton John, are rumored to have turned it down. No matter the choice, season 10 of "Idol" stands to be scrutinized more than any show in recent history.
"When you have a mature format, by definition you're probably going to lose a little bit every year," RCA's Corson says. "But it's still the No. 1-rated television show. So they're doing OK if you ask me."